Monday, 18 June 2007
Well since you asked...Camels..
Long ago, I lived in Egypt on an Island called Zamalek in the middle of the river, in a place with long wide balconies which hung over the sluggish waters of the Nile. It was an Island of grand houses built in the French style, and decaying colonial architecture , hedges of vivid bougainvillea , dust dirt noise heat and traffic everywhere, It was as they say a charmed life, I drank Hibiscus tea at the exclusive El Gezira Club and In the very early morning rode Arab horses past the pyramids and watched the camel corps on exercise plodding their stately way over across the modern flyovers towards Mena House and the Desert where, having hit the sands, they raced off with the speed of the silent wind disappearing in a cloud of shimmering dust of their own making.
In summer, when it became unbearable to ride in the glare of the sun we took out horses through the orange groves in the shade where we passed women in villages untouched by time, sitting outside mud brick houses beneath date palms ,wearing gold hawk faced masks to cover their faces from strangers eyes.
When time allowed we would escape Cairo very early in the morning and travel to the bitter lakes where the water was like thick warm pea soup and there was nothing to do but lie in it and watch the Bedouin girls, dressed in black with fuchsia sashes, languidly herding their flat tailed sheep through the sparse grass, foraging.
During Ramadan Cairo is mad with heat and hunger and the whole city simmers and rolls like a pot coming to the boil. So we would brace ourselves for a long days drive across the city and out into the sand dunes to wait an hour or so in a car park in the middle of nothing for enough vehicles to be gathered to form a convoy through the tunnel under the canal to the Sinai desert.
Once on the other side we would drive for hours along empty roads, passing vast Egyptian army camps with bunkers filled with tanks and aircraft hidden under camouflage netting. If you stopped to stretch you legs and watched carefully, in the seeming nothingness of the sands, a tiny movement would alert you to a soldier appearing like a rabbit from a manhole cover to see what you were up to. We would drive on until it got dark to camp on a beach by the water and to sleep lying on blankets by the land rovers with nothing but the stars above us and the moon rising red over the mountains. Lying there in the silence and nothingness listening to the desert breathe.
There was a place way beyond western eyes where hot springs bubbled out of the sand and rocks and the Bedouin came to bathe. We sat on the sand dunes and watched the women fully clothed in white tents bobbing in the pools like discarded laundry.
Sometimes, as we sat drinking and eating around our campfire, the camel trains would pass us in the night, a long line of camels roped together, travelling down the desert roads heading to Cairo to the market across the shifting sands, their dozing drivers swathed in cloaks , plodding on in silence, rocked to sleep by the swaying motion of their ships of the desert.
I have visited the camel market, very early on a Sunday morning. It was held inside a mud brick walled compound where great fat Pashas reclined on wooden benches against cushions ,drinking mint tea and smoking hookah pipes and men lent discreetly down to catch their words and whisper in their ears, and then rushed off to fetch whom ever or whatever it was that they had been dispatched to do. Hopeful traders paraded camels of all sizes in front of them, the baby camels knees bound in rags to keep their legs rigid so that they did not collapse into crumpled furry heaps in the dust, and the air bursting with the sound of Arabs calling out and camels bellowing and the smell of 'Eesh baladi’ bread and fool medames (egyptian bean stew).
It was long ago and I lived in another world then.