I spend my last two days in Egypt. I contract a taxi to take me to see the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, the first pyramid ever built, in 2650 BCE. We cross the bridge over the Nile and are soon passing the fields where small farmers and their families are tending their plot of land and selling oranges, strawberries, peppers, onions by the side of the road. They are from a rural community, where marriages would be arranged, where female circumcision is the norm, and where a girl who does not marry virgin may become an outcast. In Khat Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, (Nayra Atiya, American University in Cairo, 1984), women from working-class backgrounds, both rural and urban, both Coptic Christian and Muslim, talk about the circumcision ceremonies, carried out when they were seven or eight, by the women of their village, in order for them not to become too lustful in the future. And the tradition on the bridal night, when their husband would wrap a piece of gauze around his middle finger, break his bride’s hymen, and then exhibit the bloody gauze to the families.
Then the carpet factories spring up, and then the tourist coaches, and we arrived at the step pyramid, the first of the series of pyramids to be built at ancient Memphis, the first capital of the Old Egyptian Empire, where pharaohs, their families and high administrators are buried. The area was buried in sand until the mid-nineteenth century, the Step Pyramid’s funerary complex was not discovered until 1924, and very recently the mummies of three royal dentists, a royal doctor, and a royal butler were found.
Thence to the Cairo Book Fair, the largest in the Arab world. This year many of the books seem to be Islamic, and many of the visitors are wearing Islamic clothing. Many seem not to be from Egypt. There is a large marquee from Saudi Arabia. My friends in Cairo tell me that Egypt was never so religious, or at least apparently religious, as it is now. The overwhelming majority of girls were not covered, you did not hear Koranic readings throughout the day on TV, on buses and from street loudspeakers, and it used to be easy to get a drink.
But at the modern domed Cairo Opera, where I have come to see Aida, we are back in the West. No traditional Egyptian flowing galibayahs allowed here. And no Islamic clothing. You may no longer dress up to go to the opera at Covent Garden, but you do in Cairo, Ties are obligatory. A couple of fuming gringoes (not me), wearing dirty tennis shoes, are only allowed in after everyone else has taken their seats.
Earlier in the day, in the suburb of Maadhi, where I have been staying, I pick up my opera shoes and am served by a female assistant while the man who sold me the shoes is praying. I then walk a few blocks for my last glimpse of Mother Nile. The wind is coming up. It seems we are in for another sandstorm. The last one, when I was out of Cairo, stung your eyes and left a film of sand over the whole city.
A final stroll in the faded Parisian boulevards of downtown Cairo at dusk, when the crowds are out shopping or sitting in the cafes smoking their water pipes. Meeting your beloved once again in old age is how novelist Naguib Mahfuz described Cairo.
I take a taxi to the airport, where, together with Egyptian émigrés, I catch the plane to Athens which will connect with flights to Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles. The taxi-driver reminds me of the age-old refrain: “He who drinks the waters of the Nile is destined to taste its sweetness again”.