Pyramids Street runs double track from the centre of Cairo to the western suburb of Ghiza. Seafood restaurants and night-clubs with belly-dancing line the final few kilometres. The last building is the Mena House, a soaring, turreted Oriental San Simeon set in luscious grounds. Now a hotel, it was once a royal hunting-lodge. Across the road lies an enclosure where camels and Arab steeds wait to take tourists up the last steep bend to the Pyramids. When the camels with their robed drivers lurch in for work, the early sun glows crimson and scarlet on their trappings, and from our sixth-floor window at the Mena House I try to achieve Delacroix effects with my instamatic. It is not easy to exclude the souvenir stalls, pylons, concrete lampposts and small unlovely concrete mosque from the frames. Behind the Pyramids the desert begins.
On 26 February we were to get up at six in order to catch the London plane. The airport at Heliopolis lies to Ghiza as Heathrow does to Romford. All packed before dinner the night before, we set off for a last stroll to see the Pyramids by moonlight: a silly idea, really – they are floodlit by the municipality and searchlit by an unbroken stream of hooting cars. The cars park while the occupants play their ghetto-blasters and canoodle in a decorous Muslim way.
We had just walked back to the edge of the Mena House garden wall when a small group of young men came running towards us. About half were very young indeed and dressed in scratchy-looking uniforms the poison yellow side of khaki. They were running harder – away from something, not towards it. One of the others stopped and tried to make us turn back. ‘Mena House,’ we said. ‘No Mena House,’ he replied. ‘Trouble.’ We began to notice more shouting than usual at the bottom of the hill; there is usually quite a lot everywhere – shouting is the normal conversational pitch. We also thought we heard a few shots. So, obediently, we ran back uphill as fast as we could – not as fast as our protectors, who kindly slowed down for us. Half-way round the pyramid of Cheops we all ran out of breath. The noises below began to die away, and eventually we all started down again. We got to where we had been before, when another commotion began. This time there was no doubt about the shooting, and suddenly, puffing up the hill once more, we realised we were actually inside a mob throwing stones and cans. It was not very frightening: throwing was the only form of aggression, and we were too close to be targets. Besides, who could believe they were being chased round the Pyramids?
Suddenly they were bathed in moonlight. The floodlighting had gone off. From Cheops a track leads down behind the Sphinx and the son et lumière installation below. Here our protectors stopped a country bus and pulled us in with them. Squeezed in among the farmers and chickens a heavy, middle-aged German couple exuded boastful sang-froid and general contempt for the Egyptians. I felt high. I had just been reading War and Peace and recognised Nicholas Rostov’s exhilaration before the battle of Austerlitz.
The bus crept downhill into the unpaved lanes south of Pyramids Street. They were choked with vehicles coming off the main road where the action was. There was a lot of backing, advancing and hooting, everyone behaving in the friendly, conciliatory way that distinguishes the chronic Cairo traffic jam from all others. Eventually we got bored and wriggled off the bus, followed by the Germans. Our chief protector – aged about twenty-two and with perhaps ten words of English – wanted us to shelter at his house. From his gestures it appeared to be far off in the wrong direction, but he would not relinquish his responsibility until someone else invited us to his home a few steps off. This man looked about twenty-eight. Tall and very handsome in a cricket sweater, he spoke quite a lot of English, though understanding less. He lived in a large concrete villa or small block of flats – because of his extended family it was hard to tell which. The building was new but already decrepit. Most buildings in Cairo seem stuck in a grey, dusty limbo between incompletion and decay.
The new man, Ahmed, took us through a long room where several women and many ravishing children were watching a telly soap opera. A glamorous screen couple were cooing over their shared washing-up: clearly the programme was plugging sexual equality. The next room was the parlour. Photographs of several different wedding couples dangled askew on the blotchy walls. Ahmed’s mother brought glasses of sugary tea. She was fat but beautiful, and radiated an irresistibly attractive combination of welcome, dignity, and amusement at the situation. Ahmed’s wife managed to hold out through his introductions, then collapsed in giggles. She looked about sixteen, slim, barefoot and dishevelled in a long tatty gown, with the straight, delicate features of an Egyptian grave painting but a lot more animation and humour. She plonked a little girl on Ahmed’s knee and ran off. They also had an older boy. ‘Now no more,’ said Ahmed. ‘Too many babies.’
He had graduated in Middle Eastern history and finished his three-year military service. Now he was ‘studying tourism’ with a view to helping in his father’s shop. ‘Akademisches Proletariat,’ said the German husband. Ahmed thought the rioters were policemen. He hoped they weren’t Muslim fundamentalists. He admired Sadat, approved of Mubarak, didn’t like the PLO. He wanted us to know Egyptians were not Arabs. Islam, he said, teaches that all religions are equal. ‘In Egypt, Muslims, Christians and Jews are all the same. My best friend is a Copt.’ The day before we had given a lift to a wistful Coptic lady who had complained about discrimination. In my mood of dotty optimism and gratitude, I wanted Ahmed to be right. The Germans were asking him prying personal questions in English and discussing, in German, whether his hair was kinky or just curly. They seemed like throwbacks to the Nazi era, quite unlike most of the German tourists who swarmed all over Egypt.
Ahmed wanted us all to stay the night, but we refused. The trouble seemed to be over, and men were streaming back from Pyramids Street like football crowds after a match. It was lined with burning cars, smashed windows and uprooted trees. We found the entrance floor of the Mena House wrecked, telephone and electricity cut off. Groping our way through the broken glass, up the service stairs, we finished the dregs of our duty-free whisky by the light of the full moon. We could see men on the roof of the mosque, dodging in and out of the shadow cast by the minaret. Some wore black uniforms. We wondered which side they were on – or indeed what sides there were, and which we would be on if we knew. At two we went to bed, just as the rioters returned and smashed up the hotel shopping arcade – with all the noise outside, they made no impact on the sixth floor. At three we were woken by a smell of burning. Red tracer bullets were whizzing across the camel park, and the fish restaurant down the road was in flames. Creeping down the hall, we looked out of a window on the other side: there was a huge blaze in the middle distance. I think it was the Holiday Inn. The gunfire was nearer and almost continuous.
At five-thirty my husband shaved in mineral water (there was now no water in the taps) and went downstairs to see if Mr Mohamed had arrived. He was the official from the state travel agency MISR who had our tickets and one of our passports and was supposed to take us to the airport. It seemed unlikely that he would turn up: armoured-cars blocked the road outside. When the sun rose the Pyramids had turned into black satanic mills in a cloud of smoke. Breakfast began to be served in the ‘light snacks’ restaurant: fresh orange juice, rolls, coffee, and typescripts apologising for the disturbance and assuring us that three of the hotel’s six restaurants would remain open and room service continue as usual.
The front desk was beleaguered. Servants were sweeping up the glass. Guests with transistors said the BBC World Service reported the airport closed and riots in several suburbs besides Ghiza. They were thought to have been led by a branch of the security police, in which the poorest Egyptians do their military service. ‘The illiterates,’ the German husband said. We wondered whether their uniforms were black or poison khaki.
On our arrival three days before we had been sad to see the swimming-pool empty except for an electrician mending the underwater lights. Now it was being filled in case of more fires. Hot-water tanks were being emptied into it as well as cold. The water felt agreeable and we got in.
The firing stopped and started all day. Armoured-cars barred the hotel entrance. Sometimes a tank lumbered up, turned and lumbered away. In the afternoon a wondrously beautiful black-eyed young man in army fatigues appeared on a motor-bike. He wore one silver ear-ring and everyone was sure he was an emissary. From the GHQ? The International Red Cross? President Mubarak? He turned out to be a German camper looking for his girl. He reported barricades and fighting in several places. A curfew was about to be imposed. Dinner was served by yesterday’s exhausted night staff.
The night was quiet but next morning more fires could be seen and shooting broke out behind the hotel. ‘They’re driving them into the desert,’ said the German. Who whom? Diplomatic cars with special markings arrived from the German, Dutch and French embassies to count their nationals and arrange for them to be evacuated during the three-hour mid-day lifting of the curfew. We were the only British guests and the only ones not in a group. Nobody in Egypt or England knew exactly where we were, except Mr Mohamed, and he could hardly be expected now.
We were emerging from the pool and wondering which of the three restaurants to choose for lunch when he appeared. He had brought his own car (the office was closed, of course) and his American wife, whose passport would be a help with what he planned. ‘You must come at once,’ he said. ‘I’m taking you to a hotel in Heliopolis. There will be a plane at eight tomorrow morning. I’ve got you seats on it.’ He had an hour left before the curfew to get us to Heliopolis and return home himself, and first we had to dry, pack and pay.
The streets were empty, but at every major crossroads soldiers stopped us with fixed bayonets and automatics at the ready. They looked at our incomprehensible passports, accepted Mr Mohamed’s explanations, and let us pass with charming smiles of deprecation. But it took time. The curfew came down as we were in the middle of Cairo’s central spaghetti junction. Mr Mohamed was almost in tears. He backed down off the flyover and talked his way through three more army cordons. It took longer than before, and the soldiers directed us to detours by unpaved side-roads. They looked more threatening now, I thought, as well as alarmingly inexperienced. I began to stop enjoying myself. The fourth cordon was adamant. ‘They don’t understand,’ Mr Mohamed wailed. He stood by the roadside with his hands over his face. His wife suggested we try and walk to their home. We could wait there for tomorrow’s curfew to lift. But our seats would be forfeit and there was no knowing when we’d be able to leave.
Just then a special police-licensed taxi drew up. An Egyptian family got out and unaccountably stumbled off into a vacant lot with their luggage. The Mohameds piled ours in and us after it. What was going to happen to them? Could they really get home on foot? We waved goodbye.
The army cordons were stern with our new vehicle, but not unyielding, and after many compulsory detours we reached Heliopolis. The two airport hotels looked like Heathrow during fog. People were pleading to be allowed to sleep in the halls. We tried the giant Heliopolis Sheraton. All was calm beneath the muzak. Two stately Gulf Arabs in whiter-than-white jibbahs were haughtily watching over their copious luggage. If they got off we could have their room. They did. There was no plane at eight next morning. But seven hours later Egypt Air took off and we were on it. I hope Mr Mohamed gets promoted.