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Marie Lathers

How I Spent My Spring Vacation Riding and Reading Taxis in Cairo

When she was five years old, my daughter Lucy became obsessed with all things ancient Egypt. She was going to be a pharaoh one day, she proclaimed, the first female pharaoh since Hetshepsut, whose temple in Luxor was really, really, big. If she couldn’t be a pharaoh, she would be a “mummifier,” and she squealed as she practiced yanking the guts out of her stuffed animals and then putting them in jars. She would be an “arkologizer” and explore the secret passages of the pyramids and the secret files of the Egyptian collection at the British Museum. She dug up the back yard and buried my jewelry and some clay figures there; this treasure would accompany the funky Boy King Tut on his journey to the afterlife.

Many children her age begin to ask about where babies came from, but not Lucy. She proclaimed that daddies simply planted seeds in mommies’ tummies and that was that, no big deal. Larger questions concerned her: Was Pluto in fact a planet? Did dinosaurs become extinct or did they only come out at night? Were Timmy Rogers’ teeth like that because he ate too many Skittles? And, most importantly, when would I take her to Egypt? “When you are 12,” I responded, again and again. I had seven years to forget my promise.

Time flew and suddenly my daughter was going on 11. She was, as I’d been warned a ‘tween. I knew this because she began to sass me on occasion: “Mom, you’re not actually going to wear that, are you?”; “Mom, you owe me $26.31 in back allowance—pay up”; “Mom, Chelsea has a WeeWee (Wii? WiFi? Wiki?) and we don’t even have cable!”; and, most incessantly, “You promised you’d take me to Egypt when I was 12 and I’m almost 11 and you never keep your promises!” It was true. I had promised Lucy a horse when she was 10 and we didn’t have a horse. This was a girl who, of her own accord, refused to believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and God; but she believed in me.

By early January, just before the much-anticipated 11th birthday rolled around (“Mom, you have like 393 days left before you break your promise!”), I was ready for a vacation to a warm place. My daughter’s spring break would be in mid-March, when it would still be winter in Ohio. As I prepared for her birthday party, I envisioned tanning by a pool, sipping the sweet (alcoholic) nectar of the gods, and being congratulated as a superhero parent. I told my daughter that for once I was fulfilling a promise and fulfilling it ahead of time: she was so shocked she could hardly blow out her candles; I helped her.

To prepare for the trip I went to Target on average twice a day for six weeks. I went on four times a day for one month. I went online six times a day for three weeks to make plane and hotel reservations. I spent two days on the phone trying to figure out how to get Egyptian visas, which required all kinds of suspicious forms to be submitted in triplicate in hieroglyphs (which Lucy had been studying for years, thank goodness), Arabic, and English. We chose Royal Air Maroc because it was cheap and we could have a short layover on the way back in Casablanca, that romantic city on the sea where planes always land and take off in the mist. I spent three days trying to learn if I could in fact use our frequent flyer miles to book on an American carrier, but after adding, subtracting, and even multiplying, and after the various fees for using miles from a relative, using miles during a “partly” blacked-out period, and a suspicious fine for having forgotten my four-digit personal code, it was obvious that Morocco was the way to go.

We took a taxi to the airport on the morning of our flight. Anxious and stressed out, I was happy that the driver made no effort to chat, charged us the flat rate, and did not look disappointed at the tip I offered. I rolled down the window in the taxi and said goodbye to the remains of a snowstorm on the ground. I would come back refreshed, more knowledgeable and cosmopolitan, and bronzed. I pulled out my guide to Egypt, one of four books we were taking along, and read over once again the wonderful description of our hotel in Cairo. Lucy looked at me in wonder, “Well, Mom, I don’t have a horse, but this is pretty cool—so far.”

The four books we took along were of various sizes. The longest and widest was the Insight Guide to Egypt, published by the Discovery Channel. I had no reason to have selected this guide over any other except that I promised myself I would not spend more than an hour in the bookstore pouring over guides, so in the end I just grabbed something. It’s not the best guide; spurious references to Africans crop up now and then. It was clear that the guide was presenting Egypt for the 19th-century European tourist on a grand tour, and it referred to many of these 19th-century accounts. A quote from Amelia Edwards describing the merchants of the waterfront of Aswan shocked my postcolonial sensibilities: “Abyssinians like slender-legged baboons; wild-looking Bishariya and Ababdeh Arabs with flashing eyes and flowing hair . . . “; was this necessary? Was it supposed to help me recognize Aswan? It didn’t.

We also had the Rough Guide History of Egypt by Michael Haag, a great introduction to the history of Egypt from ancient through contemporary times. It was the smallest book we had with us, measuring six by four inches, with a depth of one inch. I had also ordered The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt from Landmark Books, a guide for children. I read it with great interest, but Lucy was non-plussed. “Mom, I know all that.” Did she? I needed some fiction reading as well, and I chose the only Arab writer and only Egyptian to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature thus far, Naguib Mahfouz. I bought the Everyman’s Library edition of his Cairo Trilogy, 1313 pages long. I had almost finished the first part of the trilogy, Palace Walk, before we got in our airport taxi. I wondered what my view of Cairo would be and compared myself to Mahfouz’ early 20th-century mother character, who remains isolated within her apartment during her entire married life except for a brief visit to the neighborhood mosque that ends in tragedy: a car hits her, and worse, her strict Muslim husband banishes her for having shown herself in public without his permission. I would have the freedom she did not possess and would certainly travel more than a few short blocks in Cairo, but would my trip be as life-changing? The taxi dropped us at the airport and we were on our way.

I knew the name of our hotel and the address: The Windsor, 19 Shari’ al-Alfi Bey. It was a three star hotel and located downtown, so I figured I wouldn’t need to give the address to the taxi driver in Cairo. We emerged into the dry, sunny heat and were immediately swamped by men with only one question, “Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?” We hopped into a black and white car and I said “Hotel Windsor,” assuming the wizened, advanced middle-aged driver would understand the rudiments of English. Wrong. I exaggerate, he did understand “hotel.” But Windsor rang no bells. I opened the Insight Guide and showed him the hotel name and address, blithely assuming he would understand Roman script and immediately smile in recognition and confirm with many shakes of his head. Wrong. I was really being a neocolonialist, I realized. Then, what Lucy and I came to refer to as the “social calls” began: the driver started and stopped the car every few feet and yelled for someone through the passenger window, pronouncing “Windsor” in several different ways. Since I’m a quick thinker, I decided the street name might do the trick, so I moved to roll down my window and participate. The window wouldn’t roll, the lever was evidently long gone. So I poked my head forward and blurted, along with Lucy, “Alfi Bey.” We found a few men who recognized the street name and gestured wildly to the driver, voices rising together in chorus. The driver seemed satisfied and we headed for the highway. There were no seatbelts and the traffic was chaotic, to say the least. Lanes were clearly marked but they carried no meaning, as I discovered maps carried no meaning in Cairo. The Inside Guide proved not only to be stuck in a colonial mindset, but full of cute little maps that the locals didn’t want to see. It’s all in their heads, I thought, thinking of taxi drivers from New York City to Paris, their maps are virtual and mental—that sounded postmodern enough for me. But here, I learned within 24 hours, maps, even mental ones, were meaningless.

When we got off the highway the social calls recommenced. At every corner and often between corners our driver stopped and yelled through the passenger window to a merchant, “al-Alfi? al-Alfi?” At least three men would crowd against the opened window and discuss something—the location of al-Alfi? The opposition party? The length of Cleopatra’s nose?—in animated tones with the driver and sometimes with only each other, seemingly forgetting the taxi was even there. I learned something from this. During our five days in Cairo I would regularly saunter up to a cab, poke my head in the passenger side window, and say firmly “al-Alfi?” Lucy and I decided after a few rides that perhaps the drivers really did know from the beginning where al-Alfi was, but that they could not or would not make a trip without the traditional stop every thirty feet to engage in discussion of various things, occasionally including the location of our hotel. I explained to Lucy that communication practices vary in various countries and there was no reason to think that sitting alone looking at a map and following the lines was any more useful as a strategy than was regular engagement with the people who walked the streets every day. “Mom, teach me something later, please. I’m not up for it now.” Sassy, like I said. Finally, we spied the large “Windsor Hotel” sign on the nearest busy corner to al-Alfi and the three of us exploded “al-Alfi! al-Alfi! Windsor!”

One day we took a cab to the Diwan Bookstore on Zamalek Island. We arrived after the driver had taken us back and forth across the Nile three times, in search of it. Lucy found a fiction series on ancient Egypt by Christian Jacq and bought two of the novels, The Tree of Life, about Osiris, and The Son of the Light, about Ramses II. I was undecided. I still had about a million pages to go in the Mahfouz book and our suitcase was filling up with gifts, I Dream of Jeannie slippers, and dirty laundry. But then I saw it and I had to have it: Taxi, by Khaled Al Khamissi. Yes, I was fated to read a book about Cairo taxi drivers in our favorite bar in the Windsor Hotel. It explained much about the contradictions, ambiguities, and tragedies of the life of the working poor in Egypt, and I can only recommend it highly. It has been a bestseller in Egypt and manages even to criticize the government—this just a few years before the Arab Spring—through the voices of anonymous taxi drivers. It does it all, except explain the social calls, the preference for endless verbal mapping over printed maps, and the lack of window levers. It does explain the lack of seat belts, however. And it makes me glad, in retrospect, that I gave our drivers enormous tips, in terms of Egyptian pounds at least.

We took the train up the Nile to Luxor with my newly gained knowledge of and respect for taxi drivers. And then it started: the constant calls of taxi drivers and drivers of other things. When I traveled in sub-Saharan Africa, I heard constant calls of “Blanche! Blanche!” (white woman, white woman); in the U.S. it was “Hey, baby, what’s going on?”; on the Corniche El Nil in Luxor, where we yearned to stroll unaccosted, it was “Taxi? Taxi?” and if we dared say “no” there came an endless citation of transportation means, as if walking were illegal: “Taxi? No? Why not?? . . . Calèche? (horse-drawn buggy) . . . Why not?? . . . Felluca? (boat) . . . Why not?? . . . Camel? . . . Why not??” You get the drift. And saying no, repeatedly, was not the end of it, for there was always tomorrow: “What do you need tomorrow? Taxi? Felluca? Camel? Calèche?” Nor was it enough to say we were leaving Luxor at the first sign of dawn over the barren horizon. “I have brother in Aswan, you want taxi? . . . I have cousin with camel at Giza . . . why not?? . . . No hassles!”

We stayed two nights in Casablanca on our way home. Don’t bother. There is nothing to see, no mist, no noise in the streets, either from people or traffic, the buildings downtown are in disappointingly perfect condition, the beach is not so nice. And the black and white taxis of Cairo, which had become our allies in our determination to see every corner of the world, were replaced with a group of “petits taxis” (small taxis), tiny red cars that didn’t speed, didn’t get caught up in traffic snarls, and sometimes had seat belts. We even had one with a fare meter that was working. Lucy summed it up well, “They know where everything is but that’s because there’s nothing here.” We missed Cairo for its taxi drivers and art nouveau cafés, its ice cream and mezze, its monuments and mosques, its friendly people. When we got out of the taxi that brought us home from our state-side airport, Lucy ran inside and got out her birthday card. With a big grin she sang out, “Mom!” I froze, awaiting a sassy remark. “Camel? Why not?? I have a brother!” And then she thanked me for keeping at least one promise.

©2013 by Marie Lathers

Marie Lathers has traveled extensively with her daughter in Europe, Africa, Canada, and Central America. She is also a university teacher of French. She writes creative pieces on travel, academia, and women's issues, and is currently completing a novel. An essay on living in Cameroon has appeared in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies and she had a piece on traveling in Greece in Marco Polo Arts Magazine.

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