Inside the alleyways and markets of old Cairo: worked from my own photographs
Kallis felt as if she had only been asleep for a few hours, but someone was definitely tapping insistently on her door.
‘Kallis! Kallis! Mona is here to take you to the mosque!’ It was Shamiela.
‘O.K., I’ll just be a minute.’ Kallis leaped out of bed and ran to the bathroom. A few minutes later and she was dressed, dragging a brush through her hair. ‘I’d better take a scarf to cover my hair,’ thought Kallis. She grabbed a scarf and her bag and was out of the apartment and riding down in the lift. Mona was waiting in a car just outside the apartment block. Kallis hopped in the passenger side.
‘Hi, Kallis, how are you this morning? Not too early for you, I hope.’ Mona laughed, put the car in gear and pulled off.
‘No, I’m fine. Thanks for remembering me this morning! But is your husband not coming?’
‘No,’ – Mona shook her head – ‘the men go separately to pray. We women have our own part of the mosque.’
Mona raced through the streets of Cairo, at one point nearly knocking a man off his bicycle; he appeared to be carrying the ‘balladi’ breads on a large platter on top of his head. Kallis wondered how he managed to cycle at all. Eventually Kallis lost all sense of direction.
‘Kallis, I have a confession to make,’ declared Mona, suddenly.
Kallis looked enquiringly at her.
Mona continued, ‘I have already prayed this morning. I thought it would not be so interesting for you to come to our mosque. It is not really a mosque as you imagine with domes and minarets but a room where we gather. I thought I would take you to what we call ‘Islamic Cairo’ instead.’ She glanced at Kallis. ‘It is an area full of history, like stepping back in time a few centuries! And lots of mosques.’
‘Oh, well, that sounds good.’ Kallis decided she was pleased about the change of plans. She had been wondering if she would have been expected to kneel and pray or something and would not have known quite what to do. This would give her a chance to see more of Cairo and have a chat with Mona.
‘Do you remember me from before, Mona?’ Kallis asked.
‘Yes, of course, Kallis, although I am younger than Shamiela. Yes, I remember well when my sister married your father.’ She glanced at Kallis. ‘I was so sorry, Kallis, when you lost him. So sad, so tragic.’
‘I still miss him; since being here in Cairo, I find I’m remembering how my life was before and thinking about Dad more and more.’ Kallis looked at Mona. ‘Mum never remarried, although she still might, I suppose….’ Kallis looked thoughtful. ‘I know she has had boyfriends but nothing serious. I think she’s quite used to doing her own thing, really.’
Mona smiled, lost in thoughts of her own. She was remembering the time before she was married, before she had her precious son. She had wanted to marry, really, to escape from their father who had become increasingly crotchety and volatile as he got older. He had been very strict with his daughters and they stayed in line through fear rather than respect. He had been known to break furniture in one of his furies and occasionally they had all felt the back of his hand. Mona felt he had picked on her more than Dahlia or Shamiela, perhaps because she was quite fair skinned and her hair was a dark bronze (who knows where the genes for this had come from). Her father had felt Mona was too beautiful for her own good and he had jealously guarded her from any suitors, until the day he had introduced her to Akbar. Small, dark and definitely NOT handsome, nonetheless Akbar turned out to be a kind and gentle husband and all that Mona felt she deserved. Within a year she had given birth to Mohammed, who was a special and blessed child, with his lock of white hair and serene ways. Mona was happy and content in her life, but she wondered how it must feel to be Kallis, lovely and young and free to travel the world, and to date and marry any man she chose. Or not to marry at all, if she so wished. Mona also wondered if Kallis had had many lovers but would never have dared to ask her this.
Mona pulled up by the old walls that marked out the boundary of Islamic Cairo. A policeman spotted them and ambled over, gun slung over his shoulder. Mona had a rapid exchange in Arabic with him, a few notes changed hands and she was directed over to a parking place by the wall. Mona jumped out of the car.
‘Come on, Kallis, we’re on foot from now on.’
Kallis pulled her bag over her shoulder, tied her scarf round her neck and followed Mona through the gates and into the old town.
A few hours later Mona and Kallis sat, exhausted, in a small café sipping fruit juices. The day was warming up and they watched as people hurried past, going about their business. Kallis thanked Mona again for the tour; she had really enjoyed seeing the mosques and the old part of the city. Mona had been a goldmine of information and had handled with ease the persistent men who had wanted to be their guides. Notes had exchanged hands easily to let them into hidden buildings and places not normally open to the public. They were back now in the centre of Cairo very near to the Nile, and could see the river, brown and mysterious, gliding peacefully by, heading north on up to the Mediterranean.
Mona looked at Kallis.
‘So, what are your plans for later today?’ she asked.
‘Ah. I have been invited to dinner on Yusef’s houseboat.’ Kallis smiled. ‘I’m really looking forward to seeing it’. Then, ‘What?’
Mona had a strange look of disapproval on her face; her bottom lip was out in a sort of pout.
‘Isn’t it a nice boat?’ Kallis wondered.
‘It IS a nice boat, Kallis, but do you think it wise for you to be alone with Yusef like that? Does Shamiela know what he plans?’
‘Um, well, yes, I presume so. To be honest, Mona, I don’t know but Yusef is being so nice to me, and he asked me and I really don’t see why I shouldn’t have dinner with him.’
‘Well, if you were from here it would not happen, Kallis. That is all I am saying.’ Mona smiled and relaxed. ‘I suppose it is nothing to you. You are a free western woman and can do as you please. Yes, it must be nice to have that freedom, I sometimes think.’
Kallis looked at Mona. She wondered whether to ask some questions about Yusef but decided against it. They finished their drinks in silence and Mona drove Kallis back to Shamiela’s. When she got back to the apartment, Shamiela had gone out shopping but had left a note for Kallis to help herself to some lunch and saying that she would be back later.
Kallis decided to have a nap as she was feeling tired after the early start. She lay down on the bed and thought back over the morning. It had all been going well until she had been convinced that she had suddenly spotted the old lady from the Khan el Khalili market. Kallis had run off in pursuit of her, down an alleyway that appeared to have a dead end. The old lady was nowhere to be seen and Kallis had fallen over a pile of rubbish, kittens mewing and scattering as she fell. She had not been hurt but Mona had been quite cross with her, even when Kallis had explained about the old lady’s warning.
‘Only Allah can know what the future holds for you, Kallis. He will protect you as he sees fit. Do not be taken in by these charlatans. What can they know of your destiny?’
Well, yes, thought Kallis, what can she know? But all the same it was frightening and with all the strange things that had happened to Kallis lately, anything now seemed possible. And the old lady had not asked her for money or anything. She must have felt something about me, thought Kallis, so whether this ‘bad event’ comes or not, what can I do?