As I walked around the neighborhood near the Al-Azhar Mosque in the Old City one day, searching for a recently restored Ottoman mansion, I encountered a young man who looked about fifteen years old. He handed me a business card advertising his father’s carpet shop, and then offered to help me find my way. He talked and talked. His English and German were good enough to get by as a tourist tout, and he told me he was on break from university in Germany, adding with a smirk that his big blonde girlfriend was waiting for him there. He had on grubby sneakers and baggy jeans, and walked with an affected limp like a rap star. All in all, he exuded consciousness of cool. He showed me the blue cross tattooed on the section of his hand between the thumb and first finger, marking him out as a Copt. ‘Are you a Christian?’ he inevitably asked before loudly affirming his faith in Christ. ‘But I don’t hate Muslims!’ he made clear. ‘Oh no, I loves everybody.’
When we arrived at the mansion, he volunteered to be my tour guide, a frequent (though seldom desired) Egyptian courtesy. A lazy gatekeeper sat at a card table collecting money for the tickets. My new friend (let’s call him Yusuph, though I can’t remember his name), always smiling, told me how much it would cost for the two of us. In the inner courtyard, three lovely well-dressed Egyptian girls in school uniforms, one of whom had scarved her head, struggled with a camera. Yusuph hailed them in Arabic, probably with whatever goes for ‘Wazzup’ in that language, and swaggered over. They giggled and, surprisingly confident, approached us asking for help. They showed us a old photo of the courtyard, black and white and yellowed with age, and said that for a school project they needed to take a photograph as close to the original one as possible, reproducing it exactly. ‘Just let me take care of that,’ is what I imagine Yusuph suavely told them, although five minutes later it was I who scrambled over bits of masonry and navigated the viewfinder to fulfil the girls’ request. There were demure thank you’s all around – again those Oriental eyes, whose coy innocence only went so far – and once they had left, Yusuph looked at me and, cool as a cucumber, lifted his arm to mime a brutal fellatio with his tongue-in-cheek.
The ‘tour’ began. It was tiring having him around. Half of what he said was nonsense, I knew. Although the guidebook described the mansion as restored, it looked far from it to my eyes. Scaffolding still surrounded bits of wall, there were planks of wood set at angles here and there, and a thick layer of limescale dusted the floor. Still, I could tell that it must have been very beautiful in the past. There was no glass on the windows, only wooden Levantine lattice work with little peekholes. Some panels, intricately carved, stretched at least ten feet above my head. The grand sitting room had two modest fountains on either side, sunk into ornate diamond-shaped recesses and finely decorated with geometric floor tiling. Above our heads, the women’s gallery all but whispered and murmured from out of the past.
Yusuph warned me to watch my head as we ducked low to enter a small domed chamber. ‘This was the place, ya know, where they had washings.’ It was the mansion’s bathhouse, and was unadorned but for the circular windows speckled across the dome; beams of light sliced the air between us. He entered into a story about Napoleon, who had used the mansion as his governor’s residence after he conquered the city. It was all very confused and incoherent.
‘People came here to, ya know, to yeah, fuckings.’ His smile was broader than is usually called for, his squinted eyes watery. He had become excited and impish. ‘And even once, ya know what they finds here? Even mens fuckings, you know mens with mens.’ His tone became serious at that, portending great wickedness. Then he brightened. ‘But it’s okay, ya know, mens with mens, womens with womens. It all okay with me!’ Everything was becoming very rehearsed. He laughed and, peering behind me, pointed at something on the ground, getting serious again. Going over, he picked up a small square tinfoil wrapper. I could see what it was, and things were clarifying. Gasping melodramatically, his mouth gaped wide. ‘What has been doing in here?’ he said with mock wonder.
I shrugged my shoulders and said I’d better be leaving. ‘Do you like sex?’ he said. Hmmm. Well, everyone likes sex, don’t they? ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’ I was silent at his cheek. ‘Oh don’t worry!’ he cooed, aping seduction. ‘This only business. I have a girlfriend, but I do anything. I find mens on the chat room and, ya know, no problem.’
On the way out, upset, I got a cigarette from the lazy gatekeeper. I smoked and walked the crowded streets. This happened two days before my bus to Sinai. I was laid up in bed and left to ponder the odd collision of opposites that produced a boy like that. It wasn’t the morality or immorality of it that bothered me most, but rather the extent to which a person like him is a cultural enigma: part Coptic Christian, part hustler; part oriental street urchin, part gangsta rapper; selling carpets for his father by day, scouring the Internet for tricks by night; the flesh-pots of Egypt meet the Sunset Strip. He was a living example of the kind of traditional breakdown I’d been thinking about, and at the same time a sad foreshadowing of globalization’s savvy and soulless dark side. As a product of that civilization myself – a far more home-grown product of it – I had to wonder if I am partly responsible for what is happening to Cairo, and also if that dark side has found a home in me somewhere too.Posted by djsmall at December 18, 2004 09:44 PM