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Afternoon - the Tentmaker's Street

I checked into the Grand Hyatt. I have never actually stayed in this hotel though it has been the scene of some of my higher points in Cairo. I met Richard Gere here and went with him and fourteen others on a Nile dinner cruise and that is still the bar against which all other great experiences are measured.

My dear friend, Tarek Mousa of Egypt and Beyond, had accepted that I was not charging a fee for my services on the Textile Tour as I knew that he was running it at a loss because of my cancellation of the Egypt section. I had asked him to book an inexpensive hotel on Zamalek - I usually do the cheap and clean version of hotels as I rarely do more than sleep there. He had - as a thank you - put me into a seriously swish room looking right up the Nile to Zamalek.

I think I was one of about half a dozen people in the hotel. Certainly I was outnumbered by staff.

I checked in, changed, and headed out again.

I had let Ibrahim go - that was stupid in retrospect as I now had to face the line of cabs skulking just above the security check area with its beautiful long haired explosives-trained German Shepherd and slightly long haired, dark eyed, sleek, tall, uniformed in 'deep v-necked black with boots' handler - equally beautiful.

I asked the first cab how much it would cost me to get to Bab Al Qalk - which is the most likely place a cabbie would know and almost at the Tentmaker's Street. It should be about 15 - 20 pounds Egyptian. Admittedly this is next to nothing - about $4 - and I have sometimes realised to my shame that I argue about the extra dollar many try to add in. The first one tried for 60 pounds and I almost recoiled n shock. I tried the second - difficult with the first one shouting as he chased me down the hill, "OK, WHAT DO YOU WANT TO PAY? I DO IT FOR $45? I DO IT FOR $30!!! BY METER? OK?"

The second cabbie seeing the absolute failure of the first to attract my custom, agreed to just use his meter.

He swept onto the Corniche. Immediately I realised that there was going to be a problem as he 'accidentally' missed the exit which is straight ahead from the Grand Hyatt's drive and this meant a very long detour - which would nicely jack up the meter. It did. For those who know Cairo - we even - with me protesting - shot past the aqueduct and were halfway to Ma'adi before we found somewhere to turn. He kept muttering 'Mamnour' for 'forbidden',though I saw plenty of others making the forbidden turns.

We had wondered if Cairo cabs would find a way to cheat on the meters and now I had my answer - they did!

Finally I was dropped off near the Tentmaker's Street and walked up to Bab Zuweilah. I have worried so much about my friends there that I almost had a lump in my throat to be going back. Rather than walk straight in so they would see me coming if they were peering down the street as they often are I walked around a small detour that would drop me into the street about a quarter of the way in so I had a chance of surprising them. No-one knew that I was actually coming. The only person I had told other than Tarek who made the bookings was Ibrahim as he was meeting me at the airport.

I was recently brought face to face with the fact that I really love Egypt. Someone commented that 'they' (meaning Egyptians) 'could all have been blown up for all he cared,' and I was absolutely rocked with hurt as I have so many very much loved friends there. To my terrible embarrassment I was in tears in the middle of a conversation where I was dong my best to be professional. I realised that when an Egyptian makes you his friend - or her friend - all the walls come straight down. You know that no matter how poor they are, if you were ever in trouble they would do absolutely anything for you. Friendships in other places never capitulate in the same way - there is always something held back. Egyptians give friendship at a level that really involves a lot of love.

As I rounded the corner towards the Street I saw at the junction ahead of me, Tarek Fattoh. I have no idea why he was there - no-one just stands in this corner - but his face absolutely lit up as he recognised me. Next minute I was being hugged and kissed - that is unusual for a male Egyptian but flattering. We walked together to see Hossam El Farouk and Tarek held my arm as if I were a tender flower. I could never be called that.

Both Tarek and Hossam are coming to Birmingham to the Festival of Quilts with an exhibition of their work so I made the trip in order to make sure they understood what I needed them to do.

As we walked we met other old friends - it was a slow process through the first third of the street.

Hossam immediately ordered kakedeh - hibiscus tea - for me as he knows how much I like it. On my final farewell call into the street he had produced a giant bag of dried kakedeh flowers for me to take home and I had to tell him that I would not be able to get it through Australian Customs. It arrived, hot and slightly spicy, tasting like a rich strong plum juice, sweetened a little and with a dash of cinnamon and cloves. It is one of the tastes of Egypt for me. The two men sat with huge smiles on their faces as we talked - and it was a delight just to be there with them, with dust stirring from the street and people walking past, an occasional skinny cat curling around our ankles, sunlight dappling the ground in thin shafts coming through the old roofing over the Khan, the background lilt of Arabic from others in shops around us and even (turned right down) a very long and strange speech from Gaddafi on a flickering television right in the shop.

I moved on and talked to lots of other friends - Hani, Hossam Hashem, Rug Mohamed, Ayman who came to Australia. I drank a lot more tea, and kakedeh and a coffee just for a change. I had decided not to leave too late as nights are not as safe as they used to be - and walked down the street to find a cab at 6.00pm in the growing dark.

I found a cab, and told the driver we would use the meter but I would pay extra for a direct drive home without extra distance and even more if I was not frightened. He laughed - but it was a good drive and cost considerably less, even with a double tip, than the cab did this morning. My always pitiful Arabic is coming back - I even impressed myself.

Back at the hotel I washed the grime of Cairo off. I am always amazed that even after a thorough soap and water wash there is still more black grime to come off on white hotel towels. I flipped through the book of possible restaurants in the hotel and decided on Indian. Then I realised that I wanted to ring friends who just happened to be the British Ambassador and his wife.

I rang, talked to my friend, and was immediately asked to dinner. They inherited our wonderful and charming chef, Ahmed. They suggested I bring my passport and they would warn the gate that I was coming.

The house was just down the road - behind a high concrete wall is one of the truly stunning old mansions of the colonial period which used to hover over the Nile but lost some of its grounds when the Corniche road was pushed through. I walked down the Corniche, cut through the lane beside the Kempinski Hotel, and realised that there might be a problem. There was a road block, boom gate and many soldiers backed up by four tanks. This section also controlled several streets that led into the area and many people - well, four or five - were moving into those streets and obviously permitted to go through.

I talked to the officers, and told them I needed to get through as I was calling on a friend for dinner, and they permitted me into the next section. As I approached the house part though it got harder. There were another four tanks lined up beside their wall and another large and very strong concreted-in barrier across the road. A very small gap at one end had a soldier and machine gun and I went to talk to him.

I said I wanted to go to dinner.

He said "Ah, Tabouli?" He was not asking about the menu, but whether I was heading for a nearby well known restaurant. He indicated that I had to go back the way I had come, further along the corniche, and then up the next lane - and all with very expressive whirling of a machine gun muzzle.

I said, "No, at the British Ambassador's house." The shock that hit his face was almost comical. No elegant car, not driver, a nylon jacket over day clothes, no written invitation card, and obviously no warning from the gate - so no way was I going to get through.

"Mamnour," he said - forbidden. He had shot to attention and obviously really REALLY meant it. I stepped back a few paces and rang my friend. Thank goodness for a mobile phone.

Five minutes later he was full of apologies as I was beckoned to the gate and all was well. It did not worry my one iota. He was just doing his job and protecting my friends.

My friend had warned Ahmed that there was one extra for dinner and had told him that it was Jenny. He laughed politely, used to her teasing, and said "No Ma'am, Jenny is in Australia. She would not come at this time." She tried to insist that it was me and he just laughed.

As I was being served my gin and tonic by their butler I asked him to tell Ahmed in the kitchen that Jenny said hello. A few minutes later I saw Ahmed's curious face peering around the corner and then he lit up. I was hugged, kissed on both cheeks and his delight was absolutely heart warming.

We had a lovely and interesting meal - from a wonderful prawn curry from Kerala which was funny when I had decided on the Indian restaurant in the hotel - and then I walked back past eight tanks to the hotel. On the way on the Corniche I was handed a brochure for a new waterside night club and they tried to get me to promise to come next day with all the guests in the hotel.

I am not sure that the few guests in the hotel would have been enough to fill one table in a new nightclub!

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  • Response
    Jenny Bowker - quiltmaker and textile artist - Postcards - Afternoon - the Tentmaker's Street

Reader Comments (9)

It must have felt familiar but not right, almost eerie, going about to places you have been dozens of times and not seeing the usual scene. Glad Ahmed has fallen into good hands. (Although not so much fallen as regretfully given when you had to leave.) Hanging out for the next thread! Have you seen my building work btw?

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCassandra

It is so lovely to hear how they are all getting on. I know it was hard for you following the news here. I haven't met these friends of yours, but I felt like my friends were in danger, because that's how they feel to me, through your writings.

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindi


Thankyou so much for your posts and glad your friends are safe

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Another wonderful post. Thank you for these. Were there ANY tourists on Tentmaker's Street? How are they doing without any? I'm so glad you got to spend wonderful time with them and friends. Oh, Taboula, how I love and miss that restaurant.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTonya Ricucci

I think I might have been the first tourist anywhere - I was greeted with such glee.

March 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Bowker

Fascinating experience. It's times like this that really show a persons character. Were your friends able to tell you how their families were faring? The economy must be worse than ever!

March 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeanne Marklin

What an amazing return to Cairo, you bring it all alive for me again especially the tentmakers. Please keep writing of your experiences.
See you in Kiama, Marilyn

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngel

It is so incredibly good to see another post from Egypt! My heart has been hurting for that wonderful country, I'm glad things are going well for you there.

I'm hoping that when you have time you will be able to post more of your adventures as well as some pictures!


March 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter71square

This is a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us! I hope to read more of your post which is very informative and useful to all the readers. I salute writers like you for doing a great job!

Cheap Dorms St Kilda

January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStkildabh

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