Meeting Cairo

Cairo …was incredible. I would have to say that the best part of my trip was visiting Cairo. And the reason the visit went so well is because Ahmad El-Aidy (whose Being Abbas el-Abd I will praise very soon in another post) took good care of me and took it upon himself to be my personal guide to Cairo’s beautiful, rich literary scene.

My first night there, I finally got to meet him and hold his book in my hands, and I met his uncle Magdy, who is a kick-ass comic book artist and full of funny stories and contagious charisma. Ahmad and Magdy took me to the Hossein, where I’d never been. We sat at a coffee shop where men played covers of Umm Kulthum and others, and a drunk guy in the row in front of us kept getting up to dance. We also went to the famous lit cafe el-fishawi, where I got my very own sheesha and people kept trying to peddle us wallets, toys, and other various wares. Magdy told us stories about how when he was in France, he lived by a peepshow street and how one night a fire broke out and the street was flooded with naked ladies. Ahmad, who in person is quite possibly the funniest man I’ve met, told jokes and serious stories, alternately. They showed me the gates to old Cairo, and toured me around the renovated quarters, which were breathtaking. I later sat on my balcony overlooking the Nile and smoked cigarettes, then began the first half of Being Abbas el-Abd, even though I was exhausted, and I eventually fell asleep next to it.

The following night, Ahmad invited me to Miret, his publishing house, to meet his fellow authors and Muhammad Hashim, the editor-in-chief. And although I’ve visited the offices of HarperCollins, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, Random House, those places are shit holes, absolute hellrooms compared to the small haven of Miret’s inner room. I was introduced to Hamdi Abou-Golail, whose Retired Thieves I’ve just begun and love. I also met Nabeel Suleiman (The Nights’ Darkness), Ibrahim Dawood (Outside Writing), Khalid Ismaeel (The Black Cloak), Saeed Nuh (Every Time I Meet Pretty Girl I say: Oh, Suad), Muhammad Hashim himself (Open Fields) and others. It was, for me, a historic night, since one of my top five wishes has always been to hang out with Egyptian writers and chat. Talk, laughter, jokes, tea, a cigarette. We talked about drugs, American publishing, more drugs, writing, Vietnamese presses, and other things. I was handed something yummy to smoke half an hour into the meeting. I was handed a Heineken shortly after. Within minutes the table in front of us looked like a forest of Heineken cans. Young boys who work there cleared the forest and replaced it with dishes of minced meat and onions, cheeses, and bread. We also drank Arak, which, mixed with water, turns into a miniature cloud in your small cup. And then the girls arrived, the small faeries, Hashem’s daughters, each one sweeter than the next. They asked Magdi to draw on them, and he did, then they came to me, and I drew “tattoos” on their arms and hands: stars, butterflies, and one of them wanted the same one I have on my right wrist on her arm. I farewelled the men reluctantly; I could’ve stayed and spoken to them for years. The night drew to a close in a nearby cafe, where I met Alaa –Muhammad Alaa elDin– (The Other Bank, Echoes) who is cute and funny and whose fantastical and magical book I read most of on the train back to Alexandria.

The third night, I met Ahmad’s friend Hatem, who is a comic book artist, and whose pages in Seif Bin Zi Yizen (An amazing comic book collection featuring the works of 17 artists, review forthcoming) feature a red-scarf-wearing, huge-sword-wielding, alien-head-chopping superhero. He, Ahmad, Alaa and I went to the movie theater and stood outside debating which film to see. We settled on Khalty Faransa (See post below for more on Egypt and cinema), Ahmad treated us to tickets (I literally didn’t pay for anything while in Cairo except the hotel. I was spoiled and treated to things the entire time. Unequalled kindness) and we ate kidney and drank an Egyptian cola with a fly drawn on the front of the glass bottle. Alaa’s fondness for cats became apparent when alley cats crawled past. Let me explain about these three guys. They’re like a holy trinity. A self-proclaimed Bermuda triangle, they’re the most entertaining, intelligent, and, I must add, handsome trio on this planet. These guys are witty, their wits are sharper than a mass murderer’s blade. And quicker. They cracked jokes faster than fireworks, and brighter. They were full of double entendres and jokes and fun. We walked after the movie all the way back to my hotel, crossing the river and mimicking billboards and street signs. I was told incredible jokes and Ahmad recited some jaw-dropping poetry. The guy is unnaturally gifted. Watch out for his star soon.

Cairo is beautiful. Where Alexandria is a man, Cairo is a woman. Alexandria has a long corniche, no other real attractions. The corniche is linear, hard, straight, like a man. All its streets and alleys empty out onto the corniche. Cairo on the other hand has a river and several bridges and circles (“squares”) around which cars and pedestrians roam– it’s more like a woman. It’s big, congested, untameable, dirty, sexy, dangerous, welcoming, and funny– like my body. I loved Cairo, I loved the time I spent there, and I loved being surrounded by my gifted, beautiful, generous, hilarious, and unforgettable brothers.

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