Early Saturday morning Kallis was tired but excited on EgyptAir flight 657 to Cairo. The rain had been lashing down at Bristol airport and the flight had been delayed for half an hour, Kallis was not quite sure why. It had been too early to contemplate breakfast in the airport café, but now, as breakfast was being served on the flight, Kallis felt hungry and ate the breakfast roll and drank the coffee that was served to her by a smiling air steward. The flight was about five hours long, but the plane was rather nice, Kallis thought. Each seat had a small TV on the back of the one in front, and Kallis spent several hours watching a romantic comedy, and then an old episode of ‘Friends’. She also finished reading the Carlos Castenada book. It was certainly very interesting and made you look at the world in quite a different way. It seemed though that he had written a whole series of books and this one hadn’t really had anything like what had happened to Kallis in it.
The man next to Kallis had been trying to make conversation and Kallis was glad to put on her headphones so she had an excuse not to talk anymore. He wanted to practise his English, he had said, but Kallis was not so sure what his intentions had been. His eyes had been all over her and she had felt rather uncomfortable. He had wanted to know where she was going to be staying in Cairo, and she had lied and said she was being met by friends. Now he appeared to be asleep and she could relax.
A few hours later and the plane started its descent. Kallis tried but failed to look out of the window. The man next to her had given up and was not bothering to talk to her anymore. The plane hit the runway with a bump and she was welcomed to Cairo by the pilot. He gave the outside temperature as being unfeasibly high and it definitely WASN’T raining. As the plane taxied to a stop there was the frantic clicking of seatbelts being undone as everybody rushed to get their things down from the over-head lockers, in spite of being told to wait for the seatbelt sign to be switched off.
As Kallis left the plane she was hit by an incredible wall of heat. It really WAS hot. You felt as though you were swimming through the air. The arrivals area was noisy and chaotic, everybody shouting, lots of men trying to offer you accommodation, or taxis or wanting to carry your bags for you. Kallis had no Egyptian LE on her as yet and was doing her best to stop a young lad from wresting her bag from her hand. Her backpack eventually arrived on the conveyor belt and she hauled it onto her back. There was a huge queue for the trolleys, which you had to pay for, but as Kallis didn’t have much she decided against it. An Egyptian chap wearing western clothes was tailing Kallis.
’Where you wanna go, Miss? I offer you taxi, good service.’
‘Um, I need to get some money first,’ Kallis replied.
‘Ah, I take you to cashpoint, no problem.’
‘Ok, but how much to go to ‘The Marriott’?’
‘No problem, Miss, we sort out good price.’
‘No, we sort out the price now and then maybe I’ll go with you.’ Kallis was firm.
‘30 LE, Miss. Good price.’
‘No, 25LE is what it should be.’ Kallis didn’t know but she remembered how everything had to be haggled for here.
‘Oh, Miss, you robbing me blind.’ He made a sign with his hands, as though wringing the neck of a chicken.
‘Well, I can go with someone else.’ There were lots of other men around offering taxis.
Kallis followed him out of the airport doors. He had taken her bag so she was committed to following him. They had to walk quite a way to the car park, and then she was handed over to another guy, who was actually driving the taxi. It seemed as though everybody got to make some money out of her!
Kallis settled into the back of the taxi and they were away, flying down the road, overtaking everything in sight.
‘Don’t forget I need a cash point!’ Kallis called to the driver. ‘Did the other man tell you?’
‘Yes, yes, in a minute, no problem.’
Kallis tried to relax and watched Cairo pass her window. It was a strange city: tall, unfinished blocks of flats, litter everywhere, people squatting by the side of the road – and the heat! The taxi apparently had no air conditioning as all the windows were open and Kallis felt as though someone was pointing a hairdryer in her face. After about 40 minutes they reached a slightly more affluent looking area and the taxi pulled up in front of the hotel.
‘I wait here, miss. You get money in hotel.’
‘Oh. OK.’ Kallis got out of the taxi, assisted by a smiling doorman.
‘Welcome to the Marriott, Madame.’
‘Thank you. I need to get some money to pay the driver…?’
‘Just inside the lobby entrance, Madame.’
Kallis scuttled into the hotel, found the cash machine and returned to the waiting driver. He took the money rather sullenly, Kallis thought, and then pulled off immediately. The doorman had Kallis’s rucksack and carried it into the hotel for her. It really WAS a beautiful place, more like a palace, Kallis thought, all marble and gilt. The cool air conditioning was a relief. Kallis looked at the mixture of people in western and eastern clothes as they passed her by; there seemed to be a lot of Arabs and women covered head to toe in black, their eyes very heavily made up. Kallis felt a little underdressed in such a grand hotel. She was shown to her room, which was lovely, with a view of the turquoise swimming pool from her window. Palm trees swayed gently in the breeze and the sun beat relentlessly down. Coloured birds and large butterflies fluttered about and hidden cicada beetles vibrated in a melodic effort to keep cool. Kallis sent a text message to Mel: ‘In Cairo, all ok, hotel is gr8, love Kal x.’
After a nap and a long, cool shower, Kallis set off to explore the hotel. She needed a map of Zamalek, the area this hotel was in, or someone to give her directions to Shamiela’s address. According to the letter, it seemed that the street, Sharis Ri’iam, was somewhere in the same area as this hotel.
First stop was the café, where Kallis had some grilled vegetables and a lemon tea. Then she wandered the marble hallways, looking in the shop windows at the gold jewellery and Egyptian galibayas for sale. Finally she stopped at the reception and spoke to the friendly looking guy working there.
‘Excuse me, where can I get a map of this area?’
He looked quizzically at Kallis, ‘A map, Madame? Where you want to go?’
‘Do you know where Sharis Ri’iam street is?’
‘No,’- he shook his head – ‘no, Madame, I regret I do not. However I can get you a taxi to take you there.’
‘Oh, no.’ Kallis shook her head and pushed her hair back from her face. ‘I wanted to walk, see this area, it’s meant to be in Zamalek somewhere. It can’t be too far away.’
The receptionist screwed his face up in total disapproval. ’Madame. You CANNOT walk around here. I will get you a taxi.’
‘Why? Why can’t I walk?’ As Kallis’ mother would have said, she was quite as contrary as Mary, Mary.
‘Well, Madame, for one thing it is MUCH too hot and,’ – he counted his reasons off on long, slim brown fingers – ‘and secondly, women do not just walk about here, especially European women. You will be stared at and bothered. I am sorry to say this, but it is true.’
Kallis started at him for a moment.
‘O.K. I’ll think about it. Maybe later.’
With that, Kallis headed off back into the hotel area where the shops were. She found a small newsagents tucked into the end of the corridor and, after much searching, found a dusty ‘Global Traveller’s Guide to Cairo’ which had a town map in it, including quite a detailed map of Zamalek. Next she visited the boutique next door and found a rather fetching galibaya in turquoise with black embroidery. It had long sleeves and was loose and cool-looking in cotton; it came all the way down to Kallis’ sandals. Kallis headed back to her room and, after locating the street on her map (it didn’t look to be too far and was just off the main road that ran through the centre of the island), she pulled on her new galibaya and looked at her reflection in the mirror. She looked good in it, she decided; it was nice and loose and cool and she felt well covered. And I almost look local with my long black hair, she thought. She wondered about covering her hair but decided that was taking things just a bit too far. Kallis ripped the relevant page out of her book and put it in her bag which she flung over her shoulder. She also took a small bottle of water from the mini-bar and headed off.
Kallis swept out of the front of the hotel, with a cheeky wink at the receptionist as she did so. Once she was out of the hotel area, the pavement deteriorated rapidly, seeming not to exist at all at times, or to consist solely of broken stones and gravel. Kallis regretted not wearing her purple doc martens as she stubbed her toe on a stone. Cars parked bumper to bumper, so you would just get onto a decent bit of path and then find you were trapped behind a row of cars and could not cross the road, and would be forced to double back. Kallis was certain she saw small, furry, long reddish brown creatures flash across the road in front of her. Yes, they were like weasels or stoats, and they disappeared up underneath the parked cars. Some of the cars were rather dilapidated and Kallis presumed these animals had made a home inside of them. The main road was incredibly busy and she wondered how to cross it. There was a café by the road side full of men drinking tea and smoking sheeshah pipes. A sweet aromatic smell filled the air and mixed with the car fumes and shimmering heat. One of the men stood up as Kallis passed and started to follow behind her. He was mumbling to himself in Arabic and Kallis started to feel a little nervous. Just then she saw some people crossing the road and she increased her pace to walk behind them, following their route as they dodged cars and casually stopped to let a car past, before walking leisurely on to the other side. Kallis stepped onto the pavement with some relief. The man from the café had not followed her after all. Kallis pulled her map out. The street she was looking for should be just about here. Unfortunately, most of the signs were in Arabic, but the streets did have European lettering as well. Was that it? Yes, it DID look like it. Kallis was pleased to have found it so soon but not sure how the numbering went. She was looking for number 24.
A long, hot and dusty ten minutes later and Kallis was looking at number 24, a tall block of apartments. It looked well maintained and the entrance lobby was full of well tended shrubs. Kallis realised she didn’t know which apartment Shamiela lived in. The door was open to the lobby and Kallis went in. She was greeted by the bo-ab, a small nut brown man wearing traditional Egyptian clothing. He greeted her: ‘Salam alekum.’
‘Wi alakum a salam.’ Kallis surprised herself as the reply came to her lips.
‘I am looking for a lady called Shamiela. Do you know her?’
‘Ah. Om-Yusef. Yes, Madame, she is in the top of here. Take the lift to number 10 floor.’
Kallis was puzzled. Om-Yusef? Then she remembered: of course, the men didn’t call the women by their given names but as Mother of the oldest son, Om-Yusef, mother of Yusef, her son.
‘Do you know if she is at home?’
‘Yes, I have not seen her leave today.’ The bo-ab smiled at Kallis, revealing stained and broken teeth. He pulled open the lift door and hit the button at the top, presumably number 10. The door slammed shut and Kallis was moving slowly up in the rather wobbly lift. The lift stuttered to a halt and Kallis pulled the door open. Light shone through a trellis, throwing squares of light on the marble floors. Kallis made her way over to the large wooden door and pressed the buzzer. It made an alarmingly loud noise. Silence. She tried again. This time the door was opened a crack. A small Egyptian lady with a large hooked nose, holding a rag in one hand, stared at Kallis. She said something in Arabic.
Kallis replied in English, ‘Hello, Salem alekum. I am looking for Madame Shamiela. Is she in?’
‘Madame, she sleeping.’
‘Oh.’ Kallis was not sure what to do.
‘Please could you tell her that Kallis, daughter of Charlotte, has travelled to pay her a visit and will call back when it is convenient?’
‘Meervit! Who is it?’ a voice called from the other room, in Arabic.
The door was shut in Kallis’ face. A few moments later it opened again. This time a small lady was standing there. She had bobbed brown hair, a small face with large brown eyes. She was wearing a red galibaya and gold twinkled in her ears and on her wrists. She was staring at Kallis in utter amazement.
‘Kallis? Can it really be little Kallis?’
‘Shamiela? Yes, it’s me, Kallis. I hope you don’t mind me calling on you like this with no warning but….’
Kallis was seized by the shoulders and bear hugged.
‘My darling, I cannot believe it. Allah be praised, I thought I would never see you again. And Charlotte? Is she here too?’ Shamiela looked down the corridor hopefully.
‘No, no,’ – Kallis smiled apologetically -‘but she sends her love to you’.
‘Well, well, come in. You are most welcome. By Allah, what a surprise!’ Shamiela led Kallis into the drawing room. It was very comfortable and luxurious with plump sofas and lots of little rugs scattered across the parquet floor.
‘Meervit! Make us some tea, please.’
Kallis sat down on one of the sofas. Shamiela sat down opposite her.
‘Ah, Kallis, you have grown up into a beautiful woman. You have a husband?’
‘No, no, maybe one day!’ Kallis laughed. ‘I am travelling at the moment and wanted to revisit my past. I was thinking a lot about Egypt and my time here and of course you, Shamiela. And remembering my father…’
‘Ah, my dear,’ – Shamiela shook her head sadly – ‘it was such a tragedy. But, you know, your mother; she was not happy. It was not her way for her husband to have a second wife; she did not understand, but it is what Allah allows for our men’.
Kallis didn’t know how to reply.
‘But Charlotte,’ Shamiela continued, ‘she has a new husband? More children?’
‘No,’ – Kallis shook her head – ‘Mum hasn’t remarried – but she has a good career teaching in Wales, and she’s happy, I think.’
Meervit reappeared with a pot of tea and some little cakes on a plate. The tea was poured and a steaming cup handed to Kallis.
‘Thank you. So..’, – Kallis sipped her tea – ‘you are happily remarried, Shamiela?’
‘Oh, yes, Allah be praised. My husband is a good man and he keeps me very well, as you can see.’ Charlotte gestured at the opulent room. ‘And we have a son, Yusef. A good boy, I think he needs to take a wife very soon though.’ Charlotte picked up a picture from the sideboard and handed it to Kallis. ‘A handsome man now, my Yusef, don’t you think?’
The picture was of a dark, broad shouldered young man, large eyes shining darkly and very white teeth in a big smile.
Kallis nodded. ‘So, this is Yusef. I would like to meet him, Shamiela. Does he live here with you?’
‘Of course, Kallis my darling, you will meet my Yusef. Why, he will be like a brother to you. He does live here but at the moment he is staying on a friend’s houseboat. I do not like him being there really. I think he just wants to get away from his mother’s watchful gaze. As I say, he is restless and I think he should take a wife soon.’ A small frown appeared between Shamiela’s brows. ‘Yes, he is a worry for me now but he is a good boy really.’
‘Have you just arrived in Cairo, Kallis? Where are you staying?’
Yes, I flew in this morning. I have a room at the Marriott hotel’.
‘This hotel is lovely but expensive, Kallis. You can stay her with us. Will you stay with us?’ Charlotte looked hopefully at Kallis.
‘Thank you, Shamiela, I would love to. I will stay at the hotel tonight though, if you don’t mind, as I have already paid.’
‘Of course, my dear, and tonight, unfortunately, I have a social function to attend with my husband. But in the morning I will send someone to pick you up from the Marriott. What will you do tonight? Shall I ring Yusef and see if he is free?’
‘Oh, well, it would be nice to see him, but I don’t want to put him out.’ Kallis thought quickly. ‘Tell him to call me at the Marriott if he has any free time tonight and would like to meet me; otherwise I expect I will see him here some time tomorrow?’
‘Yes, I will do a big dinner tomorrow evening.’ Shamiela clapped her hands. ‘It will be wonderful! I am so happy you are here.’