“Passport please,” the Egyptian border patrol at the Rafah crossing said to me in a thunderous voice. I handed him my Israeli passport, he looked at the picture, lifted his head and gave me a long, penetrating look. I tried to smile at him, but I was frozen with fear. Holding my passport in one hand, he wet the fingers of his other hand with his saliva and slowly began leafing through every page. It felt like an eternity. In my mind, I already saw myself lying in a cell on a concrete floor with a bucket full of excrement standing in the corner.
He finally stamped my passport, stuck his hand through the small window and returned it to me. I wanted to say “Thank you,” but the words did not come out of my mouth.
“Next,” he shouted, as he waved his hand for me to move on.
I walked a few steps and an Egyptian customs officer approached me. “Anything to declare?” he asked.
I shook my head from side to side, but he did not let me through.
“Open your suitcase,” he ordered.
I placed the suitcase on a low stool and opened it. It was in a total mess, as I had not had time to pack it neatly. Perhaps subconsciously I wanted it to appear messy, for in case I was searched, they would not notice the “strange” boxes of Telma instant soups that I had with me.
He rummaged through the suitcase, skillfully inserting his hand underneath the clothing and feeling around, without taking note of the three innocent-looking packages.
When he ordered me to close my suitcase, I made every effort to return to a normal breathing rhythm and breathe slowly, without showing any signs of anxiety. I was afraid that the pounding of my heart could be heard from a distance. I picked up my suitcase and walked towards the exit.
In the plaza outside customs and passport control, there were buses parked waiting to take people to various points in Egypt. I got on the bus that was heading to Cairo. I waited until everyone had put their luggage into the luggage compartment and then I put mine in. The bus was packed with passengers, mostly Israeli Arabs and some tourists who sounded British.
The heat was unbearable, and nobody was permitted to open a window. Of course, there was no air conditioning. My main concern was that the driver should not fall asleep while driving in the hot bus on the winding and monotonous road through the desert.
After about two hours of driving in the oppressive heat and humidity, I was able to see in the distance the tops of palm trees; the town of El-Arish. The entire length of the trip, the sea was on the right side of the bus while on the left side, all we saw was stretches of desert with endless white dunes that changed shape with every wind gust. We passed the El-Arish and continued south.
As we got closer to the Suez Canal, we passed rusty skeletons of burned-out tanks and trucks, remnants from either the War of Attrition or the Yom Kippur War, when Egypt mounted a surprise attack against Israel.
After several hours of continued driving, with my head swaying left and right from the zigzags the driver made as he attempted to avoid the potholes on the road, we finally arrived at El-Qantarah, one of the crossing points on the Suez Canal.
After about an hour of waiting, during which time we had to remain in our seats, the bus drove onto a ferry that took us across the canal. Luckily, the ferry ride was a short one.
At this point I was stuck to my seat from sweat.
Once on the other side of the Suez Canal, the bus resumed its journey to Cairo by way of the city of Ismailia. At Ismailia the bus driver stopped for a rest and we were permitted to get off the bus; most people immediately ran to the bathroom. Fortunately all I needed was to urinate.
When I entered the stall, I nearly passed out from the pungent smell of urine, feces, and Lysol that hit me. The walls of the stall were smeared with layers of dry feces. There was no toilet, only a hole in the floor, which was full of excrement.
I urinated while holding my breath and almost fainted from lack of oxygen. I ran out of the stall before I had completely emptied my bladder and as a result, I wet my pants. In one of the nearby stalls, somebody was vomiting. The heat outside suddenly felt like a cool breeze compared to the inside of the bathroom. Little did I know that this experience was just a prelude to what was awaiting me in Egypt.
I decided not to buy the coffee and sandwich that was being offered at the local kiosk for three Egyptian pounds. I boarded the bus and noticed that most of the passengers were pale and shaken. I smiled to myself and thought that I was not alone, since the other passengers had the same Egyptian “experience” as I had.
A while later, I did not know how long because I had lost all concept of time, I noticed small white houses with thatched roofs. The sign at the side of the road informed us that it was Ramadan City, which, as someone pointed out, was very close to Cairo. There were no people on the streets, but the number of houses was increasing and there were more vehicles on the road.
Indeed, not long afterwards, we arrived at Heliopolis, which in Egyptian is called Masr el Gedida. The bus stopped at the front of Hotel Beirut where I and some other passengers got off. The bus, with the rest of the passengers, continued on to Cairo.
“Welcome,” is how the front desk receptionist greeted me with a big smile. “Marhabah,” I answered him. Since I knew a few words of Arabic, I decided to try and use them. When I put my Israeli passport on the desk, his face suddenly became very solemn as he restrained himself, trying to act pleasantly. He gave me the keys to my room that had been prepared earlier and said that he would return my passport to me a bit later.
“I am sure that he is going to photocopy it and give it to the Muhabarat,” I thought to myself.
The next morning I went to my planned meeting with Washington Esposito. As soon as I went outside and headed for the taxi stand, six cab drivers jumped on me, each one insisting that he had the best and most comfortable cab.
“Mister,” one of them said to me while pointing to his cab. “My car is the most modern.” I took one look at the cab and broke out in laughter. “Scrap metal,” I mumbled to myself. In fact, all the taxis together looked like a junkyard.
I walked over to a friendly looking driver who had spoken the least and asked him, “How much is it to Midan el Tahrir?”
“Ten Pounds,” he answered.
Immediately the others jumped up and began screaming, “I’ll do it for five,” one of them said. “I’ll do it for four,” the other one said.
I turned to my driver and with a smile asked, “The last price?”
“Get in. I’ll take you for four pounds.”
He got into the taxi as I got into the back seat.
“Come and sit next to me, my friend. You will see the sights better,” he said.
“Okay. Since we are friends, I’ll move to the front,” I said and got in next to him.
As we drove through the city, I noticed that every few meters, police officers in white uniforms stood, holding rifles. What struck me as really odd was that for a number of kilometers they stood with their backs to the road.
“What is this?” I asked while pointing to the police officers.
“Our president, Mr. Hosni Mubarak, will soon be passing down this road on his way to the airport. This is his security detail,” the driver replied and pulled out a cigarette and offered me one.
“No thank you. I don’t smoke,” I told him.
“Too bad,” was his response, and lit the cigarette in his mouth.
I searched my memory trying to remember how Washington looked, as I had met him only once about ten years ago. I knew he was an Italian whose parents had moved to Egypt when he was a child. His parents eventually got divorced and he stayed with his father in Cairo while his mother returned to Italy. He was married to a Hungarian dancer who had defected to Egypt while performing with a folk-dance company. It was during the height of communism in Hungary, when ordinary people, behind the “iron curtain,” were not permitted to leave and visit any western countries.
After being married for several years, they had a daughter who they named Alessandra. A few years later Washington’s wife fell ill and subsequently died. Alessandra grew up with her father and eventually got married.
Washington would travel often to Italy to visit his elderly mother who lived near Naples and his nephew who was studying in Bologna.
I befriended him during one of his visits to Bologna, where I lived for a while, and he invited me to visit him in Egypt. He gave me his address, and he advised me to bring along an assortment of vegetable seeds in order to finance my stay and earn a bit of money.
While traveling at a snail’s pace in the blinding sun and choking from the exhaust fumes of the trucks, the driver pulled out a sandwich wrapped in newspaper, broke it in half and offered me the other half. “Eat, it’s good.”
Although I was quite hungry, I decided to decline his offer. The man just did not know anything about hygiene; apparently, he had natural immunity. I did not want to take any risks, so I just told him, “No, thank you,” and hoped he did not take it personally.
My meeting with Washington was supposed to take place at Midan el Tahrir Square near the entrance to the Egyptian Museum. I tried to remember the names of the main streets through which we crawled, but unfortunately all the signs were in Arabic.
Sitting nervously in the taxi, I asked the driver where we were, and he replied that we were on Qasar al-Nil Street, a main street in Caro. I had no choice but to believe him.
I felt terribly uncomfortable about arriving at my first meeting with Washington so significantly late, but I was totally helpless. For a moment I thought about getting out of the taxi and walking and probably reaching my destination a lot faster.
We passed a monument with a statue of a man with a tarboosh (fez) on his head, pointing in the direction of one of the streets we just driven down. I “photographed” in my mind the place and recorded the street we had come from and the direction the statue was pointing to.
A few hundred meters ahead, which felt like an eternity, I was able to see the Egyptian Museum, with its black iron gates open and a long line of people waiting patiently to enter. I gave the driver a tip; I paid him five pounds.
The driver took the money, kissed it, held it to his forehead and put it into his pocket. “Thank you, sir,” he said with a smile and continued on his way, but not before I wrote down his name and phone number. I wrote, “Farouk, the cheap driver.”
Washington had been waiting for me for about two hours, sitting on a bench in the shade and reading a newspaper. Every now and then, he would pick up his head and look over the top of his reading glasses at the passersby.
I sat down next to him and just stared at him, as I wanted to see if he remembered me. I realized that he did not, because after sitting next to him for about a minute, he asked me something in Arabic. I answered him in English and told him that I do not speak Arabic. He excused himself and asked me in English if I knew what time it was.
“Yes,” I answered. “I am sorry I am late. Had I known about the traffic situation in Cairo, I would have left much earlier.”
He looked at me and burst out laughing.
“Ariel, is that you”?
He got up and gave me a tight hug. Although he was seventy years old, he had strong arms. “He had surely been a boxer or a body builder when he was younger,” I thought.
Washi, as everyone called him for short, invited me to a small café located just opposite the museum. The problem was how to get across the busy road.
Even though we were standing on the white stripes of a pedestrian crossing, not one car paid any attention to us; they all totally ignored us. We were forced to stand for a long while, hoping that somebody would stop and give us the chance to cross the road.
While standing, I observed the most amazing scenes.
A slow-moving bus packed with people who were barely able to breathe. I think the number of people hanging onto the outside of the bus outnumbered the people on the inside.
A cyclist who passed us loaded with a huge pile of newspapers on his bike. Although he was swaying from side to side, the newspapers miraculously did not fall off.
Suddenly a police officer appeared out of nowhere, blew his whistle, raised his hand, and behold, all the cars stopped.
We crossed the busy road, walking between the cars just as the Israelites did when crossing the Red Sea. When the officer sounded his whistle again, the vehicles began moving and the tumult and commotion returned.
Washi ordered tea for both of us and a hookah (narghile) for me. We sat down on low uncomfortable wooden stools as the waiter brought a short-legged round table, placed it in front of us and put down two small cups with what looked like non-dissolved coffee.
“What is that?” I asked Washi.
“That is Egyptian tea. Drink it while it is hot,” he answered, and he began drinking it in small sips.
In the meantime, they brought me the hookah and put the aspirating tube into my hand.
Looking at Washi in amazement, I asked, “What am I supposed to do now?”
“Inhale,” he answered. “It is tobacco mixed with dried apple leaves and honey.”
I inhaled deeply and suddenly found myself momentarily unable to breath. The smoke that I had inhaled was so intense that it clogged my airways, caused my eyes to bulge and I found myself coughing uncontrollably. When I finally recovered, I called the waiter and asked to take the lethal hookah away.
I took the cup and began sipping the tea which was excessively sweet.
“Who asked for such sweet tea? I like my tea without sugar,” I said.
Washi sat there laughing. “This is Egypt, not Tel Aviv. When in Egypt, do as the Egyptians do,” he replied.
I drank the tea, served in small glass, occasionally having to spit out leaves that were floating in the dark sweet liquid, known in Egypt as chai.
Washi did not ask me anything about the vegetable seeds and I did not volunteer any information on the subject. While we walked downtown, I brought up the topic.
“How much are the seeds that I brought worth?” I asked Washi curiously.
I had no idea about the value of the seeds that I had smuggled into the country in the boxes of instant soup.
“It depends,” Washi replied. “If they are cherry tomato seeds, you may get up to $2,000 per kilo, but if they are cucumber seeds, which are sold by the unit, you can fetch three cents for each seed.”
I felt a sudden weakness in my knees.
“Would you please repeat those prices?” I asked. Washi repeated them and added, “You have to find the right buyer and at times it is necessary to employ an agent.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. The prices equaled the price of drugs without the risk of drug smuggling.
“Perhaps you want to move into a hotel in my neighborhood. Washi asked. “Why did you choose the Hotel Beirut in Heliopolis?”
“It was recommended to me by an Arab businessman who sat next to me on my way to Egypt. He told me that it was a nice hotel and reasonably priced,” I said.
“Forget that nonsense and listen to me,” Washi responded. “I know them all. Next to where I live there is a nice friendly hotel, not expensive. I have every confidence that nothing will happen to you there.”
“What can happen to me,” I asked.
“In Egypt, human life is cheaper than a pack of Marlboros. It is worth remembering,” he replied.
I took a taxi with Washi to my hotel in Heliopolis. Washi chatted in Arabic with the driver the entire trip. Other than a few words here and there, I understood not a word. I just focused on everything going on around me. I observed the various vendors, the vegetable stands all along the way and young children trying to sell whatever they could get their hands on.
This is the great metropolis called Cairo, where the contrast of the classes stands out in the most blatant way. A shiny black Mercedes could be parked right alongside a street vendor dressed in rags with his emaciated donkey bound to a wood post. This is the great noisy and congested Cairo, where the citizens breathe the polluted air emitted from the cars and trucks and where the noise of horns honking and sirens wailing can be heard well into the night. This is the mysterious Cairo that has hidden within it more than meets the eyes and what the ears hear.
“Here we are. Go upstairs and bring down your belongings,” Washi said. “I’ll wait in the taxi.”
When I reached my room and began packing my suitcase, I noticed that my clothing had been rearranged and was not the way I had left it. Somebody had been rummaging through my suitcase. The first thing I did was to check for the three boxes of soup that I had hidden under my clothes. Luckily they were there and there was no sign that anybody had tried to tamper with them or open them. I quickly threw all my clothes and personal items into the suitcase.
I did not wait for the elevator, but ran down the stairs. When I reached the ground floor, I threw the keys on the counter and said to the receptionist, “Charge my Visa card.” I did not wait for an answer and just ran out into the street. As soon as I stepped outside, I was surrounded by taxi drivers, screaming at me,” Mister, hey, mister.” I jumped into the cab that was waiting for me and off we drove.
“Where will I be staying?” I asked.
“At the Palace Hotel,” Washi answered. “It is not far from where I live,” he added.
I was silent the entire trip. I began thinking that I was being followed. From now on everybody I see will be a suspect, except Washi of course, who I have known for many years, I thought to myself.
Washi suddenly turned to me and said, “Why are you so quiet?”
“Many thoughts are going through my mind,” I answered without going into detail.
As we were driving towards the hotel, I noticed a familiar street.
“Is this Qasr al-Nil Street?” I asked.
“Bravo,” answered Washi. “You are finally familiarizing yourself with the city.”
“It was just a guess,” I replied. “It’s the only street I know.”
I noticed that we drove through the square where the statue of the man wearing the tarboosh was standing. At the end of the square, the road branched off into three or four smaller streets. After several hundred meters, we turned right and entered a small street where on the left stood the hotel. Hotel Palace, the sign read.
Washi went into the hotel with me. The receptionist recognized him and they hugged and kissed each other. I signed in, showed my passport and got the keys to my room. We agreed to meet again in the morning.
I went up to my room, took a shower and went straight under the covers. As soon as I put my head on the pillow, my eyes closed and I fell into a deep sleep.