The loneliness of holding
My new guitar
While you play
May 31 2006
I'm writing on the back of a film poster in the Windsor Hotel dining room. This was a successful poster hunt. I shipped most of the heavy magazines and posters yesterday morning by surface mail from the Ramses Post Office. I still have two heavy bags to check at the airport for the 4 a.m. flight to Amsterdam. I'm sure I'll be charged a hefty excess baggage fee because of the weight. People kept selling things to me until the last day, today.
The posters were a bonus. I had expected to spend most of the time on this trip with Freddie, who flew here from Oregon to meet me. It was wonderful to see her and I find that I'm still in love with her more than ever. She is a sweet woman with a heart full of compassion. I wish there were a way for us to be together. I know that part of her wishes for this too, but she apparently doesn't want to give up her independence to a man again, or at least not to me. Would I take away her independence? I wouldn't want to, but one always gives up something to live with someone else. She is the only one who can make that decision.
A film crew is here making a movie "Cinderella" with Mona Zaki. Wasfi Doss, one of the hotel owners, is bustling about making sure everyone is happy. They're using all the rooms on my floor except the one I'm in.
The noise in the dining room finally drove me out. In Egypt, especially in Cairo, it is hard to find a quiet place. Trina, a woman from Nashville Freddie and I met in the hotel dining room a few days ago, told of her exhausted state upon arriving in Cairo after a long flight. She said as soon as she laid down to sleep she was startled by a loudspeaker issuing the Muslim call to prayer. When that was over she drifted off to sleep, only to be awakened by another one a little later. "Here come another Mohammad," she said. Later, on a Friday when two different sermons were being blared over loudspeakers on opposite sides of 26 July Street, Freddie called it "dueling Mohammads." It is even worse when a coffee shop is running TV sound through a PA system during a soccer game while the sermons and calls to prayer are also blasting away. Nobody can hear anything.
Most travel time is spent sitting in some uncomfortable place where relaxation is hard. There are always many hours of this. Free wireless internet is available at the Cairo airport. There are no free drinking fountains however. One must buy drinks that are mostly unwholesome in some way. They all seem to have caffeine, sugar or both. I need to remember to bring bottled water when I come here. However, at 2 a.m. it is quiet waiting for the boarding gate to open. I was not charged anything extra for weight when I checked my bags, but I'm sure they exceeded the passenger weight allowance. On previous trips I've been charged $150-$200 for excess weight.
The Ibn Tulun mosque is my favorite of Cario's medieval Islamic monuments. I've visited it many times. The noise and chaos of the rest of the city are absent here. It is still used as a place of prayer.
This is my favorite of Cairo's original Fatimid gates. I've met several residents of Cairo who say they more or less know where it is, but have never seen it. It is a bit off the beaten track.
I've been told that when doing business in the Middle East, one must be prepared to drink tea and socialize first before getting down to it. People in that part of the world want to talk to you about your family, who you are and what you care about first, before they feel comfortable doing business with you. I don't do any big business deals with anybody, but even for the small ones I do like buying luggage or collectibles, the tea-drinking seems to be an important preliminary. I've tried to adapt to it, even though I don't particularly like tea. My ability to adapt only goes so far. I can't do the tea socializing for its own sake. People in Cairo that I know want to grab me by the elbow when I pass on the street and make me sit down and have a cup with them, even if we aren't planning to do any business and even if we've already had enough tea and conversation to know all about each other. It is difficult just to walk by and wave "hello." It can be done, but it takes determination.
I also have trouble with the nighttime coffee shop socializing. You see people sitting in coffee shops at night for hours and hours, talking and talking, as if there is nothing better to do. I have difficulty with this for several reasons. My Arabic is not good enough to carry on with it for extended periods, I don't have that much small talk to offer in any language, and there is almost always something I'd rather do. In Cairo, I'd rather walk around and look at things than sit and talk. If I'm not in the mood to do that, I need to be tinkering with something, like a computer program. Reading books is also more interesting than chatting in a coffee shop. In fact, just about anything is more interesting than that to me. If I were a novelist or a detective perhaps I'd feel differently.
One sees a lot of men in Cairo with most of their teeth rotted away. This is from drinking that sweetened tea day in and day out year after year, with no dental care, and it is also one of the liabilities of being a man in that culture. Women don't sit in coffee shops in droves the way the men do. They don't have time for that because they're busy taking care of things at home. Bad teeth in Egyptian men is also partly a product of Cairo's high unemployment. These guys seem to think if they don't have a salaried job, there is nothing to do. I don't understand that at all. Of course there are things to do! One must think about what to do, but there are things to do, and people ought to get up and do them. I find the long hours of obligatory sipping and chatting in Cairo oppressive and irritating. I'm knocking it, but I have tried it. Let's all get lives, please. Unemployment is a state of mind, not a social malady.
From my hotel room window in Cairo I watched a homeless man. I think he was about 35 or 40 years of age. He had no shoes and wore only a galabiyya; he scratched constantly. It was late morning, the sun was already hot and he was trying to sleep on the concrete patio of an abandoned theater building. Then he moved between two parked cars and continued tossing and scratching on the pavement there. He had a beard and needed a bath. He did not seem aware of any of the people who walked by, nor they of him. After a few minutes he moved from the space between the two parked cars to another patch of concrete under a tree next to a small food stand. The food stand was closed. He seemed tormented, utterly without hope. I don't know what happened to him. He wasn't there the next day.
This is a picture of me and my former wife Freddie Daniel, taken in Cairo by Ihab El Gabry on 23 May 2006 while we were visiting Egypt together. We are true soulmates and I love her madly. Marriage is not the automatic result of a bond such as ours. Time has proven that it doesn't matter if we're married or not. "Freddie and John" will always be a powerful natural phenomenon.