Old Cairo: Dave’s Rabbit; Chapters 19 & 20

Old Cairo

Inside the alleyways and markets of old Cairo: worked from my own photographs

CHAPTER NINETEEN

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.

CHAPTER TWENTY

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?

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Ankh: Dave’s Rabbit Chapters 12, 13 & 14

Ankh

Drawn using the shape of my own (gold) ankh that I bought when I lived in Cairo

CHAPTER TWELVE

Kallis was back at the Marriott hotel, luxuriating in her large bath. The hotel had provided some wonderful-smelling, exotic bath oils and she was making the most of them. Her black hair floated like a seaweed halo around her head as she lay back in the warm water. A small, jelly-like gecko was on the bathroom wall regarding this small mermaid with one bead of a black eye, whilst making his way up to the ceiling after a fly. Kallis watched as he moved in fast fits and starts. His little splayed feet had rounded sucker toes. Kallis remembered geckos from her life before in Egypt. She had forgotten about them until now. The Egyptians didn’t like them; she remembered some said that they had poison on their tongues and would flick them in your food. It was all to do with a certain gecko that lived a long time ago and was in a tree which the prophet Mohammed was hiding from his enemies in, and the gecko made its ‘chit-chit’ call and gave the hiding place away. Kallis remembered liking them as a child in spite of the maid’s dire warnings. Similarly, the Egyptians seemed to like and respect cats, and maybe that was because there was also a story about Mohammed saving a freezing kitten from the cold and putting him in his coat sleeve, or something like that, Kallis couldn’t quite remember. But in the Cairo apartment where she had lived there had been some cats, beautiful glossy-coated tabbies; but more spotted than stripy like the British variety, and these cats had had big ears and enormous gooseberry green eyes. Kallis had always liked cats even when they had caught and tortured the poor little geckoes.

‘It’s so strange here’, thought Kallis, ‘so foreign and yet familiar at the same time. Lots of memories are coming back to me. I can almost remember some Arabic too; it seems to just pop into my head now and then. My life would have been SO very different if Dad had lived and we had stayed here in Cairo. I wonder if I would have gone to the UK to university? Or if I might have been pushed into marrying an Egyptian boy? I wonder if there is an alternative world somewhere and I AM here living a different life.’

Kallis was suddenly shot back into this world from her train of thoughts by the ringing of the telephone in her room. She rose unsteadily from the bath tub. The oils had made it, and her, very slippery. She wrapped herself in one of the large fluffy towels provided and padded barefoot and dripping through to the other room.

‘Hello?’

‘Hello,’- the voice was deep and male – ‘Kallis? This is Yusef, Charlotte’s son.’

‘Oh! Hello. How nice of you to call me.’ Kallis felt a little flustered.

‘No, not at all, it is my pleasure. I was happy to hear that you are here, Kallis. I would very much like to meet you. If you have not made any other arrangements perhaps I can show you some of Cairo tonight?’

‘Yes, that would be lovely. I would really like that. Thank you.’

‘Very well, then I will pick you up at your hotel, the Marriott? Yes? About 7.30?’

‘O.K., Yusef. I’ll look forward to seeing you then.’

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Seven thirty came and Kallis was ready and waiting at the hotel reception. She had been unsure what to wear as she hadn’t asked what they were going to be doing, but she had thrown on a pair of loose black trousers and a long white blouse over the top. It covered her up in a modest way and felt nice and cool. She was looking around at people as they came into the hotel, trying to remember the photo she had been shown of Yusef. She wondered how he would recognise her. Suddenly she saw him. He was talking to the clerk at the other reception desk across the hall. She saw the clerk point discreetly at her and then Yusef looked over at her, a big smile starting to appear on his face. Kallis took a big breath and walked over.

‘Yusef?’

‘Kallis? Hello, how lovely to meet you at last’ He took her hand and shook it firmly and smiled warmly.

‘Come, let us have a tea here first and we can decide what you would like to see this evening’ His English was flawless, although he phrased things a bit differently than a British person might do. Kallis thought she might get to like this tall, rather good-looking man. They sat down together in the hotel café and Kallis ordered a mineral water; Yusef had a mint tea.

‘So, Kallis. You could have been my sister in another life perhaps.’ He laughed easily. ‘What brings you to Cairo after all this time?’

‘Well, it’s not an easy question to answer, but at this time in my life I am looking for the big answers to life: trying to find myself, a cliché I know but I suppose that is what I am doing.’ Kallis looked at him to see how he was taking this information. He seemed to be listening intently. ‘I have had some strange experiences lately and I got to thinking that I would like to revisit my past. Your mother has been most gracious. I wasn’t even sure if she would want to see me.’

‘Oh, Kallis, why would she not? My mother has often spoken to me about you and your mother. She wished that you had stayed here but she understood that your mother felt she had to leave.’ He lowered his voice as if someone might overhear him. ‘There were many in your father’s family who felt that you should be kept here and brought up as a Muslim in our way of life. My mother did not agree. She felt a child’s place is with its mother but it is not our way for the women to voice such an opinion.’

Kallis nodded. He continued, ‘My mother respected your mother very much and missed her greatly when she left. She grieved for your poor father for one year. Then she was introduced to my father and a match was made. She has been very happy with him, I think; for my father is a kind and generous man.’ He smiled brightly. ‘And I was born almost exactly nine months after they married.’

‘Yes, my mother told me what happened and, of course, I do remember some of it.’ Kallis sipped her water. ‘But anyway, tell me about yourself, Yusef. Do you work?’

‘At the moment, no. I have been doing some work for my father’s company but I am hoping to set up a business of my own next year. At the moment I am looking after my friend’s houseboat and working on my business plans. The houseboat is very nice; perhaps I can show it to you some time.’

‘Yes, it sounds lovely, a boat on the Nile.’ Kallis smiled.

‘Ah, Kallis, if you like boats we can take a felucca up the river a little way this evening. What do you think? Or I was also thinking I could take you to the Khan el Khalili, the big central market? We could have some dinner there. I know a good place. It should be very lively this evening.’

‘Oh, yes, the market sounds lovely; I think that would be great. Can we do that?’ Kallis was excited.

‘Come, Kallis, finish your drink and we shall go.’

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Yusef had a very nice car and a driver he introduced as Ragab that whisked them across the busy city. Kallis wondered if the car was Yusef’s or his father’s but didn’t like to ask. Ragab dropped them next to a pedestrian bridge that crossed a very busy road. Beggars were sitting on the bridge and at the bottom, people were pushing past them. Everybody seemed to be in a hurry but without actually moving very fast. There were women sitting on the filthy pavement selling sweets and breads. Some of the bread was actually touching the pavement and Kallis thought she would have to be really hungry before she would fancy eating anything bought from them.

‘This is the start of the market here, Kallis. Come with me, I will show you.’ Yusef lead her up a narrow street, past stalls selling spices in baskets and other unidentifiable things in jars. The sweet smell of incense filled the air and every so often rather unpleasant drain smells as well. Two tiny grey and white kittens played in the gutter. Kallis and Yusef entered an alleyway that had shop windows full of clothes and rolls of materials in bright colours. ‘This is the street of the tailors, Kallis. These gentlemen can make you anything you like; they can copy a dress from Vogue magazine if you wish it. My family uses this shop here – Ah, Mr. Mahmoud, salam al akum .’ Yusef shook hands with the portly and smiling man in the shop door. They chatted in Arabic for a while after Yusef had introduced Kallis. ‘We must go; there is much to show you.’

The next street was full of shops selling gold – and what gold! Elaborate and ornate and so much of it, all gleaming with a deep yellow hue that the British nine carat variety does not have. ‘What do you think, Kallis? Would you like some Egyptian gold?’ Yusef spread his hands out at the bullion before them.

‘Well, I have to admit I tend to wear silver…’ Kallis started to say.

‘Ah, we have the silver shops too, Kallis, just here look.’ He guided her round a corner into another alleyway. Most of these shops had silver displayed including household items in silver, like teapots and cutlery. Kallis felt overwhelmed by it all. She stopped by a display of jewellery and pointed out a pendant that appealed to her.

‘It is called an ankh, Kallis, or it is also known as the key to the Nile, or the key of life. In the old Egyptian paintings the kings and queens of Egypt hold them in their hands for protection as they travel to the next life. If you wish, I will help you agree a price for it. I do not think you will find the silver here expensive.’

‘Yes, thank you. I think I would rather like it.’ Kallis found herself attracted by the shape, like a cross but the top was oval in shape. They went into the dark little shop and a price was quickly agreed upon. Yusef insisted on buying a silver chain for the amulet as a present for Kallis. Kallis was enjoying herself immensely, soaking up the atmosphere of the market, all the smells and sounds, people shouting to get her attention but all the time feeling safe, having Yusef with her who knew the way through this labyrinth of streets and could speak the language. Suddenly, as they were passing down an alleyway she felt a hand upon her shoulder and a hissed whisper in Arabic in her ear.

‘What?’ Kallis jumped and turned round to face an old lady, her face a mass of wrinkles, a black scarf covering her grey hair, her nose a hooked bird’s beak.

‘Child, you speak English?’

‘Yes, I am English,’ Kallis replied.

The old woman studied Kallis’ face. ‘I think you have one foot in two worlds, my child. There is something following you. You are in great danger.’

‘What do you mean? What is following me?’ Kallis was frightened now.

Yusef grabbed her. ‘Come on, Kallis, don’t listen to her. She is not all there in the head, you know what I mean?’ He circled a forefinger by his head.

‘No, I want to hear what she has to say.’ Kallis was scared but wanted to talk to this old crow of a woman who smelt of incense.

Yusef’s face turned black. It was as though someone had turned the lights out on his face. ‘Very well, Kallis, whatever you wish. I shall wait for you in that café just across this street.’ He pointed out the place and walked off without another word. Kallis was dismayed at this sudden turn in his mood but the woman was talking to her again.

‘There is an event following you, my child. A bad event, it is catching up with you, each day it gets nearer.’ Her luminous grey-brown eyes earnestly searched Kallis’ green ones.

‘But – but what sort of event? What will happen?’ Kallis could feel her heart rate going sky high and took a deep breathe to control it.

‘It does not have to happen. It is not written, but it lurks near to you and waits its chance. Like a serpent, coiled but ready to strike – ha!’ She mimed this with her bony hand. Kallis jumped back. The woman grabbed her again and pulled her nearer.

‘This is all I know. You are easy to read, my child. Something has taken your energy level up; you have moved through this world in a different way lately. But this thing that follows you, it is of this world and waits its chance. Be strong and may Allah protect you.’ Then she was gone, swallowed up into the crowd. Kallis stood still for a moment, then walked over to the café. Yusef was talking to the waiter.

‘Ah, Kallis, we can eat here. This is the famous Naguib Mahfouz restaurant, where our most illustrious of writers used to come.’ His mood seemed to have changed back again, Kallis was relieved to see.

‘They have a table for us at the back, in the cool.’

They both washed their hands and were shown through to a table at the back of the restaurant. Yusef didn’t ask about the old lady and Kallis decided not to mention it. She would think about it later when she was alone. They feasted upon a variety of different dishes, mostly vegetarian at Kallis’ request. It was all very nice and the conversation flowed easily. Yusef talked about his life in Cairo, his friends and his work, about how he wanted to set up a financial advice service aimed at foreigners living in Egypt. He laughingly told Kallis how his mother kept trying to arrange a marriage for him. ‘I have not met the right woman yet, Kallis, but soon, soon.’ Kallis smiled, imagining Shamiela earnestly doing the matchmaking for her son.

‘And so, Kallis, do you have a young man waiting for you back in England? A fiancé perhaps? Are you hoping for marriage soon?’

Kallis laughed. ‘No, no and no to all those questions. Well, actually I do have a very good friend waiting for me, I hope anyway. He’s called Dave and I only met him recently. We’re just friends but – well, there is something between us but at the moment I’m not sure what.’ She sat for a moment staring into space and thinking of Dave, wondering what he was doing and whether he had received the note she left for him at the West Country pub. Yusef coughed, bringing her back to the moment.

‘I did not mean to pry, Kallis. But you are very beautiful and I think many men would be interested in you. Now I am feeling protective of my new sister!’

Kallis held her hand up. ‘Hey, no need, I can look after myself, believe me.’

Yusef’s face darkened just for a moment. Then he smiled brightly. ‘O.K. So. What shall we do now? Are you tired Kallis, would you like to go back to your hotel or would you like to do something else?’

Kallis yawned. She was quite tired, and it was suddenly late in the evening. The lights were on outside the restaurant and the sun had gone down long ago, the call to prayer echoing like a ghostly wail across the city. What a day it had been: hard to believe she had only arrived in Cairo this morning and already she had found Shamiela, and now she was here, sharing a meal with Yusef.

‘Ah, Kallis, you are tired. We will go back now and tomorrow morning I will send our driver to collect you and take you to my parents’ house. Then perhaps you would like to see the pyramids and the Sphinx?’

‘That would be fantastic, and thank you so much for all this, Yusef, it’s been a great evening.’

‘It is all my pleasure, Kallis. You are most welcome.’

Market day

Image

Every Friday morning the market comes to Jimena (unless it is lashing with rain). It is the day to go out and meet people and the cafes and bars are usually busy. Fruit and vegetables, clothes, bags, footwear, flowers – all available at good prices. This stall is selling sweets. By the afternoon it is all packed up and cleared away as if it had never happened.