Monthly Archives: August 2013

Clearly Off in Another Fine Mess

Mess1I love writing in transit.

There’s something strangely comforting about hovering in a giant metal tube 35,000 feet in the air, sipping single-serving bottles of cheap Merlot and wondering when the polite, heavy-set woman from Mozambique next to me is going to realize she’s been drooling on my shoulder since we left Addis Ababa.

And so here I am again, penning from planes and picking through piles of tattered in-flight magazines and dry peanuts, halfway to Nairobi and starting to wrap my head around the full extent of I’m about to get myself into.

People keep asking me in very serious, grown-up tones, if “I know what I’m doing” or if “I’m ready” and I constantly lie and say that I do, and I am. The honest truth is that I don’t think I’ve ever really been ready for anything in my entire life and I’ve definitely never known exactly what I’m doing, other than the fact that I’m doing it. That’s usually always been enough.

There’s a weird kind of personal confidence that can really only be gained through a certain sense of reckless self-abandon, a kind of head-first dive into fuck-it-all and general oblivion. No nets, no wires, no pads, no scores, just balls.

Maybe that’s also half the fun of writing in transit, the knowledge that each time I put down my pen and close my eyes I’m a few inches farther from where I came from and a few closer to wherever I’m going. Moving at inhuman high speeds through thin air also reveals the inherent lust for danger and adventure I think is hiding under the surface of most people’s comfortable smiles and generally repressed in favor of white picket-fenced dreams and early retirement plans. A plane skids off the runway in San Francisco. A commuter ferry sinks off the coast of Zanzibar. A train derails in Spain. A bus topples over in Italy. An old man dies alone in bed somewhere. And all the while here I am, sitting miles above it all, watching the wide world riot, pen in hand, trying to come to terms with life, the universe, everything, and my place in all of it.

I love how the world keeps finding new ways to surprise me. Every day I learn something new and I’m reminded about how painfully ignorant I am about everything around me. There’s so much I want to do, so much I need to learn and every night I can’t help but be reminded about the world around me as it swirls and turns so remarkably out of my control. All I can do I hope that the things I do somehow ripple and radiate in a positive direction, even if I never fully understand the great scope of what it all means.

Am I really creating a tangible change? Who the fuck knows. Least of all, me.

What I do know is that what I’m doing is at least a semi-altruistic alternative to sitting behind a computer screen in Canada sharing horrifying, self-gratifying, guilt-ridden links to browser views of a world that’s more nasty and brutish than I want to believe it really is.

I’m too young to embrace a fully naïve view of the world in which I can change everything around me, but I’m also not old enough to fully forego and fuck the world quite yet. Despite all the senseless and savage disparity I see around me, I don’t think I’m done being an optimist. A time may come where I hit that point, and I expect it somewhere close around the bend, but not yet. Maybe no one’s offered me the right price yet.

The woman next to me is still snoring as we hit a small fit of turbulence. She barely budges. On my lap is an old blue paperback copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that’s seen better days. I’ve had it on permanent loan from an old friend for years. “Read it when you need it,” she told me, “you’ll know when.” I close my eyes and I’m splitting a pint of whiskey with Sal Paradise, talking about the great journey of life and the open, endlessly inviting and enveloping road that seems to effortlessly intertwine itself into every part human experience for those bold enough to notice it. He disapproves of my means of travel but seems to be okay with it; it’s a long way to Africa and just a tad too far to hitchhike. Bodies in motion and nothing but cool, calming comfort and lukewarm uncertainty.

I hear a crunch and my eyes snap open as a small packet of cutesy, airplane-shaped crackers lands on the tray in front of me. We’re miles from Nairobi and out the window I can see the sun rising over the Sahara in the distance.

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Tea and Shisha in the City of the Dead

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Amateur Egyptian tour guide and childhood friend extraordinaire Filippo.
He’d been living as an ex-pat in Egypt for about a year.

By the height of afternoon, the overhanging sun is so strong that even the few lonely patches of shade surrounding us seem to scream a certain protective and uninviting macabre dominance as we lazily stroll by, kicking clouds of dust in our wake. The roads are intentionally unpaved with sand and each rusting gate or crumbling stone façade seems to blend into the next as we glide past, trying to pass unnoticed by passersby just as happy to ignore or scowl at us.

Filippo, conscious of the visibly unaccustomed sweat now pouring and pooling down my back into my dark, retrospectively overtight jeans, nudges me out of a daze with his left elbow. I shake my head.  I’d been in a sort of trance since ever since we’d gotten here, trying to gradually regulate the almost unbearable intake of muted death and mingled misery that everyone around me seems to be gleefully ignoring or just painfully accustomed to.

“Time to break?” he asks me, his voice still almost unrecognizable under the thick black beard he’s grown over the past year in an attempt to blend in with the human scenery of Egypt.

Visiting the Cairo Necropolis had been Fil’s idea, not mine. Frankly I’d never heard of the place as it generally took a socially accepted backseat to more tourist friendly scenes like the Pyramids or the Al Qahira Fatimia Mosques. It’s the kind of place that’s meant to be purposely ignored, especially by locals and especially by foreigners. When he proposed it as the perfect place for an afternoon lunch and stroll, it seemed somewhat unnecessarily dark, even for my taste. If zombie movies had taught me anything, it’s that a placed commonly known as “The City of the Dead” was where I would be lunch, rather than eat it.

The Cairo Necropolis is a massive Arabic pseudo-cemetery that lies just under Mokattam Hills in the Southeast corner of the Egyptian capital. Originally meant to be a somber place for Cairenes to bury their deceased relatives, the neighborhood has since become a refuge for the city’s poorest undesirables who’d rather walk proudly with the departed than beg amongst the living.

For the better part of the afternoon we’d crept along rows of Muslim mausoleums and tombs, some marked with cryptic calligraphy and others with nothing but a thin slab of upright sculpted stone to designate them from just another hole in the ground. As we walk, Fil tells me how wealthy Egyptian families will visit their respective family tombs once or twice a year, but otherwise leave the care of their deceased relatives to relative strangers too poor to afford anything but a makeshift grave of their own, nestled amongst the ruins and rusting fences that seem to fill the makeshift city. Residents live relatively rent-free amongst the rubble and decaying remains of a neighborhood frequented by the living but undoubtedly ruled by the dead.

As we pass, children behind us cry out and point fingers; despite the scenery and somber surroundings, we’re the oddity in this sideshow that seems normal to everyone but me. We walk past a crumbling stone wall to uncover three elderly women in black niqabs huddled around a pot where something seems to be cooking. I instinctively pull out my camera but Filippo puts his hand aside and silently tells me that I shouldn’t. We’ve been friends since we were kids so I trust his judgment. The women stare at us for a moment before bowing their heads in unison towards the pot. We might as well just be passing phantoms.

I can’t help but feel completely and utterly out of place, like I have no business being here, mainly because I don’t. I hate cemeteries to begin with, but this is something else, and a wild feeling of overwhelming hopelessness washes over me and I can’t help but feel a little sick. Some estimate the population of the slum at half a million, but no one’s really sure.

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Shade in the mosque is sometimes the only heat relief for residents of the Necropolis

We leave the major portion of the City and Fil takes me into a crumbling mosque he says is famous. Inside, about fifty men lay scattered on the red carpet, trying desperately to escape the heat in whatever patches of shade the walls choose to provide at this hour. Neither of us is Muslim, but we sit for a while under a nearby ornamented arch that looks like it could crumble and kill us at any moment.

“Prayer time is soon, we should leave,” Fil whispers. As we exit, a young Egyptian kid approaches us, eager to show off the few words in English he knows. Fil introduces himself and points at me before gargling some words I don’t understand.

“What’s my name in Arabic?” I ask him, half laughing.

“Daud,” he answers, pronouncing it Da-ood and drawing out each sound with his cheeks.

Daud,” I repeat slowly. The kid stares at me and nods with a huge grin. Apparently that’s his name too.

Nearby, we settle at a small brick-laced patio where a few bearded Egyptian men huddle around large hookah pipes. The owner gleefully produces two plastic chairs and a matching table. He serves us black tea and we share a shisha pipe, trying to beat the heat. The concept had shocked me a few days earlier, but in Egypt, when the temperature gets too unbearable, locals turn to hot rather than cold drinks to cool down. Sweating is socially acceptable when everyone is doing it and no one cares to begin with. Nearby, I spy a throng of unattended goats lazily ruffling through a massive pile of garbage. One of them dips its head into the underfilth and emerges with what looks like a large bone between its teeth. Part of me wonders whether it’s human, but deep down, I’m not sure if I really want to know.

As the call to prayer suddenly erupts nearby, the owner kindly asks us to pay our tab so that he may tend to his religious duties. He and all the others leave us alone on the terrace as they file one by one into the mosque we’d just left.

My time in Cairo had seemed like a giant walk from one medieval mosque to another and as the coals burn out on our pipe, Filippo tells me there’s just one more place he wants to see before we head back to his air-conditioned apartment in Zamalek. It’s almost completely silent as we pack up our things and walk towards another set of stone walls and high rise minarets a few sandstone blocks away, just by the Dead City limits. We make sure to take our time to not disrupt prayers but when we arrive, a group of men are sitting on the curved threshold and blocking our passage. Fil engages in what seems to be a verbal altercation with them, but with Egyptians, I can never tell the difference between playful banter and genuinely heated debate. By the end of the conversation Fil is shouting in red-faced rage, throwing his hands in the air as I stand idly by, smiling awkwardly like an idiot.

“They won’t let us in because we’re foreigners,” he finally turns and confesses to me. He yells something over to them in Arabic as I try to quietly get him away before we get into something we can’t get out of. “This is not Islam! This is not the way of peace!” he keeps turning and shouting as we walk away. The men speak hurriedly and laugh at us as we make our way down the massive stone steps. “This is such bullshit,” he whispers under his breath.

This may be the City of the Dead, but even as living men, it’s still somewhere we’re not welcome. This place is reserved for those destined to call it home, in life, death or both . We, on the other hand, are just passing through, and no amount of compassion or interest can change that. We don’t belong here. Not yet anyway.

Crumbling walls and piles of garbage litter the area as far as you can see

Crumbling walls and piles of garbage litter the area as far as you can see

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