Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hello, England! You're bloody freezing.

It is always a shock to see flocks of British people again after a prolonged absence, wandering exhausted and lost around Cairo Airport like undercooked chicken drumsticks. I felt quite sorry for one teenage tourist who was a tad too hasty in approaching the passport control desk. The spectacularly ill-tempered passport officer pointed his pen at him and ordered him to go to the next booth along with a peremptory ‘henaak! HENAAK!’ [there] – thereby ensuring that the cowed individual’s abiding memory of Egypt is of first-class and friendly service. Apparently fastidiously exact about everything, the same officer ignored me and my passport while he put out a fag before closely supervising his colleague who was making him a cup of tea using tea kept in an old vitamin bottle. The spoonful was not sufficiently rounded.

Meanwhile another officer senior sitting on a desk nearby expressed his disgust about the fact that his minion had brought him falafel instead of fool.

Once inside and remarkably the gate was announced as being open almost immediately, although of course once there I found it deserted save for a solitary officer staring at us while he smoked a fag. I repaired to a ledge in front of a café where a British couple were seated, drinking tea. These two were fascinating. Both middle-aged and grossly overweight, they functioned according to a routine which they had obviously cultivated and refined over many years. The woman talked almost incessantly, and in minute detail, about the most asinine things, while the man occasionally fed her with the fish of a ‘yeah’ or a ‘that’s right’ occasionally – and both seemed quite happy with this set-up. I had passed her while on my way to the gate, while she herself was on her way to the shops selling trinkets at one end of the airport, and when she got back to the café she sat down and proceeded to slowly describe this tiny journey in excruciating detail to her husband.

“It’s just more shops over there selling souvenirs and that.”

“Oh yeah...?”

“There was this one woman selling a bracelet, but it was like three bracelets together but not joined so you could wear them separately sort of up your arm.”

“Oh right…”

“And it was sort of a purple colour it was, but the woman who was sending it she wanted 48 Egyptian pounds for it. Or was it 50. No it was 48 - so I didn’t bother, I just walked away. It wasn’t that nice that bracelet.”


“I can almost close my jacket now, I weighed myself in the morning and I’ve lost some weight and one of my chins has gone down. Look, here.”

“Oh yeah that’s right.”

“Oh look they’ve started queuing up now. There’s no need for us to rush cos the plane aint going anywhere is it and we’re booked aint we.”

“Yeah that’s right we’re booked.”

And so it went, on and on, according to some logic unfathomable to everyone but the couple themselves. Like a game of squash the woman emitted a never-ending stream of thoughts and had them batted back at her.

Couples are a mystery. But not as mystifying as the crass stupidity of tourists. While we were being ferried to the plane on the bus, a woman in a straw hat from what sounded like Northern Ireland asked an airport employee standing next to the driver, “which direction are the pyramids from here?”

“I don’t speak English…Arabic only.” The man replied.

“The Pyramids. Which direction are they?” The woman insisted, her voice getting louder and slower.

“No English. Arabic. Arabic.” At this the man returned to talking to the driver while the woman stared at him momentarily before shouting at top volume to her friends behind her, “he says he can’t speak English but if he can’t speak English how could he understand that I was speaking English and tell me that he himself can’t speak it??” She then shook her straw-hatted head resignedly, and tutted at the stupidity of the natives, obviously pleased with the sheer brilliance of her superior white man logical deduction, while I resisted the urge to push her out of the bus.

Egyptair was shambolic as always, one man with three children including a small baby barely containing his rage at the fact that he had not been given a seat with the cot thing despite apparently requesting it twice two months ago. He inquired whether the only solution to dealing with Egyptair’s incompetence is, in fact, to fly British Airways. Rather than fixing their problems, Egyptair have thrown a purser at them. I had no idea what a purser was before this flight, but soon warmed to him because:

1. After he inquired about whether I had enjoyed my meal and I requested an extra bread roll he gave me FOUR and even gave me extra butter, which caused me momentarily to pass out with stupefaction.
2. He had a side parting/comb-over and big tinted spectacles, and was a huge man who made his eyebrows dance up and down when he talked which I think was a ruse for distracting irate passengers not given cot seats.

I hate flying, but this flight was almost painless apart from the fact that when we arrived over London the plane immediately turned round again before proceeding to draw a series of circles on the flight path thingie they show on the TV screens to distract passengers’ attention from the surliness of the cabin crew. The screen ended up being covered in five circles in an Olympic Games logo-type formation, and in between bouts of hyperventilation I managed to ascertain from the woman seated next to me that the plane was waiting for a landing slot, and that these circles were ‘holding patterns’ - which is a term I liked very much.

I will not detail here the fiasco that happened at Heathrow Airport which involved me and my luggage heading home on a bus while my distraught parents waited in arrivals for three hours. My father reads this blog, and I fear that should I recount this incident he may spontaneously combust into flames.

England is the land that summer forgot, as usual, and yesterday I was in a hat and gloves. I am more and more convinced that the climate really does account for the (in)famously dour, reserved British character: it is hard to generate warmth of any kind in these conditions. The worst thing however is the silence, which truly is deafening, and the forbidding slate grey of the sky, which induces a sort of claustrophobia as if it is closing in on my head. It is of course wonderful to see family and friends, and there is a certain attractiveness about the fact that life here is in many respects so much easier than it is in Egypt: I have almost forgotten what heat feels like, but the pain and misery of Egypt’s everyday oppression and poverty feels equally distant. However life is so smooth here, and so easy, and so ordered (apart from the frequent acts of random street violence obviously), that I feel constantly asleep, and trying to find the ordinary everyday madness that I like to look at is like attempting to surf in a paddling pool.


Basil Fawlty said...

When I was a (very unremarkable) child, I was flying to Egypt alone (from Kuwait). Anyways, I think one of my parents knew a flight attendant in Egypt Air, and he spoke to one of his mates who was on my flight, to give me some special treatment. Anyways, nobody paid any special attention to me on the flight and when I got to Egypt, I duly reported my underwhelming Egyptair experience.

A week later, the flight attendant friend of the family called to report that his friend had simply picked a random child on the flight and began serving him ice cream. He never bothered to check if he was the right kid or not.

That's Egyptair (or Egypt period) for you, in a nutshell.

a librarian said...

On an Egyptair flight long ago I asked the cabin crew several times for some water. I can't remember whether I complained or whether my persistence wore them down ... I was eventually and unexpectedly served a brandy.

Forsoothsayer said...

i actually disagree with all that u said, but am irrationally too grumpy with u for being ill to document exactly how. will annoy u with it in person later, possibly.

fully_polynomial said...

lol @ the brandy story!

Will E. said...

the brandy story sounds unprecedented.

Anonymous said...


Re your random child story, saw this about random 5 cars


Basil Fawlty said...

Oh, a comedian? Very funny stuff...especially not seeing an Egypt Air link between the two stories.

Maybe that kind of mental deficiency is why you can't figure out how to create a username for yourself.

fully_polynomial said...

i havent read the anon story, just glanced over it. to be fair, it seems to fit very well w/ your ice cream story. especially that you have the (or egypt period) part. no where in the comment did the anon imply he was being funny.

does this make me mentally deficient bardo? i have my own user name.

Anonymous said...


I am mystified by your hostile response! I just thought it was a good story about Egypt life and how it differs from other places. I had just read it and thought there was a similarity to your story and you might be interested. If I touched a sensitive nerve I'm sorry (not sure what for though,but forgive me anyway if I caused offense).

Jade said...

Dear Amnesiac,

This is the first time to visit you & I am absolutely impressed by your style of writting. I enjoyed reading your post very much & yes it is truly always a pain to travel through Egyptian Airports or airline. I always land in Alexandria - I dont know if you are familiar with it - but I am positive that it is 10 times worse than Cairo Airport. A small area where passport control, luggage & customs are that can only be described as utter chaos & no relation whatsoever to any airport in the world...no matter how poor or third worldy country it is - trust me - I have been to Pakistan!!!

It is quite shocking... since Tourism is supposedly our largest industry! How could this be...?

Oh well - I hope you enjoy your time in London - do you live there?


Forsoothsayer said...

actually tourism only accounts for 20% of egypt's income...we would do better to focus on agriculture.

Will E. said...

It's well known that focusing on terchiary activities is the key to evolving economically. I think they started saying that since fifth grade. Dubai makes almost as much money as we do from tourism, which is shocking considering they have nothing touristic to offer.

Egypt has a thin strip around the nile as well as the delta area where agriculture flourishes but other than that, the vast desert.

Maybe anyone who knows more about economy than I do will correct me, but it's apparent that quality services are the way to go and what to focus on. Tourism is a service and we're not using it a third of how we could.

Basil Fawlty said...

Anonymous...my bad then and sorry if it sounded like I flew off the handle. I just read your response as snarky and having had bad experiences with other anons, jumped to the conclusion you were being funny...u know, as in Basil's story had nothing to do with Amnesiac's post so here's another story that has nothing to do with her post.

Anyways, my apologies and yes, the article was very interesting.

Anonymous said...

ok Basil thanks-. Perhaps I will work up the courage to create a username...and then not be able to remember it-I am not young like you and memory is failing~

Anonymous said...

haha welcome back to the UK!