The first signs were good: within minutes of getting off the bus somewhere on the outskirts of Fayoum I’d found a motorbike taxi who didn’t make any attempt to rip me off, in fact I couldn’t be sure if he wasnt just some guy who was happy to help out. Certainly he spent most of the time shouting out to all and sundry as we passed by, something along the lines of, “look look a foreigner has come to visit”!
The novelty of my presence was probably something to do with the fact that Fayoum is not what you’d call a traditional tourist destination. This largely modern and rather shambolic city would get described in conventional tourist literature as a right shit heap but to dismiss it as that would be a gross disservice to its people. However, one of the cities more impressive features were generous heaps of rubbish, grazed upon by mangy, nervous cats and dusty, bony sheep, licking the nutritional vestiges from plastic and tin. Miniature dunes of grubby sand blown in from the surrounding desert clogged the roadsides and clung to every rough surface on the buildings. Although a common sight throughout the country, Fayoum seemed to have a greater sand magnetism than elsewhere, making the feather duster an indispensable tool for street sellers of all kinds.
Fayoum may not be able to offer any historical sites but it can offer a welcome free from the lure of financial incentives that can taint Luxor or the beach resorts. A call of sabah al khayr, (good morning) on a stroll in search of breakfast was always greeted with a sabah an nuur, a smile and a wave. Inevitably, the offers of tea were too numerous to take up all of them, from shop keepers, machine gun-toting policeman or relaxing locals.
Accepting on a whim an invitation for coffee at a nameless, little cafe I was soon introduced to the entire clientele by the owner Ahmed, who made a point of describing each man’s profession, which seemed to be the best way of differentiating between them, given that most were also Ahmed or Mohamed. Is it just me or isn’t there an inherent flaw in picking the majority of male names from a data base of five, particularly when second names are also chosen from the same data base?
With a skill honed through thousands of idle hours, avoiding the wife and kids, playing dominos, men slapped the plastic tiles down onto the table with a determined clack, at a speed too great to impune any tactics. The sedate puff of shishas helped offset the urgency of the game, which you would normally associate with a leisurely past time rather than a hectic race to the finish. Battered mini buses full of home bound workers and shoppers clunked to a halt outside, the drivers swiftly furnished with a glass of steaming, sugary tea to go. If there is a bus driving test in Egypt it certainly includes a section on how to hold a scalding glass, whilst steering and answering the occasional telephone call or shouting at other road users.
Not everyone in Egypt is eager to have their picture taken but once I had asked to take one, Ahmed the boss immediately insisted I take pictures of absolutely everyone in the cafe and any acquaintances who happened to be passing, every few minutes came another cry of, “soowra soowra” (picture picture) and I would have to do my duty for someone else.
My return the following afternoon elicited the kind of response normally reserved for resurrected prophets, not of the status of Mohamed himself of course but my presence rarely causes such feverish adoration, Bengali schoolchildren being the one exception. With a few more photos I managed to lower the excitement level enough to hold some kind of conversation. Thankfully another Ahmed who could speak a bit of English showed up, which relieved me of my ham-fisted attempts at Arabic. Apparently, regulations insisted that I needed a tour of the district on the back of a customer’s motorbike. Not only did I get a chance to take in some of the more spectacular rubbish heaps that I’d missed on my walks but also meet some more Ahmed’s and other names. Mostly we hurtled through the human slalom of narrow pedestrian streets, with more shouts of “look at me, I’ve got a foreigner”, stopping briefly for introductions and more “soowra soowra”. We managed to keep the tea stops down to one for which my bladder was eminently grateful.
After purchasing a shwarma one evening, the owner Ali (not Ahmed for once although thankfully some of his employees were called Ahmed) insisted on taking me on a tour of the town and rang up an uncle to get him to drive us to a favoured watering hole where I was forced to drink fruit cocktails. The next night I encountered the local youth who were improvising their own form of entertainment by revving motorbikes to the max, spinning the back wheels in the dust and while holding onto one of the handlebars, dragging them round in a circle producing huge choking clouds. Others pulled wheelies and inexpertly occasionally crashed into their mates, hooting with laughter. Needless to say as soon as I stopped to watch, up came the cry of “soowra soowra”.
Numerous other encounters enquired after my well-being and offered assistance as well as tea. By the third day of intensive hospitality I was ready for a lie down in a quiet, dark room. Niceness is rarely so exhausting but I was only allowed the brief respite of the front seat to myself on the minibus to Minya before I was confronted with the next round of tea fuelled introductions. The process only to be repeated in Sohag and Qena with not a tourist in sight.
Looking to get away from it all? Well, maybe the towns of Egypt are not the best destination but want to make instant friends and never pay for tea, this is the country for you.