Over the past few weeks I've drifted back to Eastern Standard Time again. When I woke up yesterday the sun was already dipping low. Not wanting to waste the few remaining daylight hours, I took a walk, another aimless one. As my aimless walks tend to do, this one turned into a very long aimless walk, winding from Tahrir to Ibn Tulun, through some shady cemeteries, down to al-Moaz and back to Talat Harb about 6 hours later. On the way I passed dozens of photo-worthy sites, but was most attracted to the grimy old workshops hidden in the backstreets. Although nothing new to anyone that lives in Cairo (unless you live in Maadi), I thought some of the photos flowed pretty well together. I may go back for more, as soon I can finish the latest load of projects and start waking up in the morning.
I woke up in Dakhla Oasis a few days ago, hopping off the bus in the baking medieval town of Mut. Climbing to the top of the collapsed mud-brick city, I was welcomed with the sight of giant dunes spreading to the south and beautiful white cliffs lining the north. A strip of palms and concrete blocks ran east to Balat and Bashendi and northwest to El Qasr for about 30 km each. And that was Dakhla.
It was still morning when I arrived in Balat and began wandering its ancient rounded alleys, tunnels and steps. It was completely deserted and looked as though it had been for a some time. Low-lying doorways and windowless walls marked oasis villages like Balat and Mut, where the khamseen winds and raiders have long been very real threats.
Like much of the Western Desert, Dakhla hasn't always been a tiny desert outpost. If you go back far enough it wasn't even a desert. Many believe that as the entire Sahara grew hotter and drier over 6,000 years ago, its first inhabitants were pushed towards the Nile, where they decided to become one of earth's greatest civilizations. Some of the earliest prototypes for the earliest pyramids, called mastabas, have been found just outside Balat. The Pharaohs, Romans and Ottomans obviously thought Dakhla important enough for a good dose of construction. And with Egypt's ongoing water crisis and the huge aquifers buried beneath the Libyan Desert in places like Dakhla, it may return to relevance in the not-too-distant future. But unlike nearby Kharga, chosen as the site of Mubarak's controversial New Valley project by which a huge amount of Nile water is being redirected into the desert to fuel new settlements, Dakhla has avoided attention. Which is why I skipped Kharga and headed straight for Mut.
Hitching a ride back from Mut, I crammed into another minibus for the trip to El Qasr. An old Ottoman outpost with a well-preserved, mostly-abandoned old city, El Qasr sits right on the fringe of the oasis. I dropped my bag nearby for a few days and spent many hours both navigating the medieval corridors and exploring the desert beyond.
I spent my next day in search of Bir al-Gebel, one of Dakhla's best natural springs. At a breakfast cafe that morning, I'd learned that I could either hope for an unlikely ride to the springs from the turnoff point 5 km down the road or simply cross the desert on foot. Leaving everything green behind me I was soon surrounded by dunes and desert, the white cliffs looming ahead and marking the route to Bir al-Gebel. It was only 5km, but I imagined it more like Oman's Empty Quarter. When I reached the eerie, abandoned mud village beneath the mountains I was dizzy from heat. I finally joined up with the dirt road and made it the springs, paying a whopping ten pounds to have some of the hot, white water diverted into a concrete basin on top of a hill. It was well worth it. Feasting on a bag full of 50-paistre snacks, my mainstay in Dakhla, I enjoyed the sun and springs until late in the afternoon. An hour down the dusty road, I managed to hitch a ride back to El Qasr.
It was the food that drove me back to Mut. El Qasr had none. Even ful and ta3miya were nowhere to be found most of the day. As it was Friday afternoon, the only ride I could catch was with chair salesmen from Asyut, Christians who stopped at villages along the way to deliver and haggle over plastic chairs. They joined a larger gang of Asyut natives back in Mut at a cafe, where I'd get all my meals for the next couple days. Settling into the Forsan up the road, I started planning my next trip into the desert when the guy at the desk mentioned something I thought might be important: my visa had expired. I thought of the hefty per-day fine for tourists overstaying their visa, and abandoned any further Dakhla plans, instead heading to the bus station and back to Cairo the next night.
At the mogamma in the morning I was happy to get a visa extension without any fines, which means I can stay in Egypt until August. But the following day I picked up my new passport from the embassy, which means I can also leave Egypt tomorrow, if I decide it's finally time.
I took a walk the other day, starting downtown, winding through the Khan el-Khalili and ending beneath the citadel. While I've explored them many times before, no two walks through these old corners of Cairo are ever quite the same. A couple blurbs about the last one:
A fight had broken out just ahead, with yelling and pushing and a gathering crowd, swaying with the action and nearly blocking my lane up the hill. Already dizzy from a long walk, I barely paid attention as I moved to pass through. Something between a mechanic and a guy who paid the mechanic, nothing of interest to me. I brushed my chest against the dusty, near-dilapidated walls as I squeezed past the eager male mass and walked on, slowly, apathetic as the shouting faded behind me.
I stopped a block away to admire layers of paint artfully peeling away on a crumbling wall. A gruff little voice from another age interrupted from across the street: "foreigner!" He didn't look as old as he sounded, but was still about ripe for death. His back was hunched over a flimsy bread tray and a fat shisha pipe hung from under his white mustache. "Taala, join me!" I was only half interested in meeting him so I wanted to say no, but it was the way he waved me on with his tiny, frail bird arms under the weight of that thick leather jacket he wore like a shell. I pulled out a chair and we made small talk over some shay. He asked all the questions and I gave the answers. He seemed amused by my mechanical responses, and not uninterested, somehow still happy to gather useless information so late in life. All I learned from him was his name: "The Joker." He said it with a sunken, impish grin that lit up his eyes. I thought to ask more but there were too many places left to go and walls to see, and so little time.
The fight down the street had simmered back into an argument and the crowd was spreading back into the alleys. A few of the tired spectators wandered our way, young boys in tight jeans and button-up shirts. Pulling out chairs from the next table, they introduced themselves as various members of the Joker's family, all a couple generations removed. The old man sat back quietly as the young ones took their turns asking the routine questions, his face curling comfortably into that old, mischievous grin, since he already knew the answers regarding me, them and most everything around us. When we reached the obligatory religious questioning I wanted to leave again, and pretty soon I did, but only after breaking the disappointing news that despite the beard and attempted Arabic, I wouldn't be making it to Muslim heaven. It made the boys visibly concerned but the Joker just kept smiling. He refused the pound for my drink as I stood to leave.
The fight down the street was over, probably had been for a while. Aside from the boys at the Joker's table, the street and all its old walls were silent again. I wondered how much they'd seen over the centuries, how much drama change and monotony had passed in their time. I left, letting the thought carry me up to the citadel.
I'd never seen one before, but I knew the bird people were all over the old city. I'd seen their flimsy, scaffolded towers rising out of the slums across a five mile stretch of Islamic Cairo, and I'd seen the big flags waving across the crumbling skyline, swung by unseen hands for unknown reasons. I knew the towers were for birds and that the people who climbed them were bird people, and that was all.
Wandering a dead and dilapidated stretch of homes, tombs and garbage dumps, I spotted a silhouetted body in a nearby tower. It leaned against a fence enclosing the top of the tower, twenty meters above the dusty alley where I stood. Another body came into view as I climbed the brick wall behind me. They were both just boys. The second one had a red flag swinging from his wrist over the fence. A flock of pigeons shot into view over the tower and began circling over the alley. The closer of the boys turned towards the fence and looked in my direction. I waved his attention and pointed to the tower. He gave a friendly wave back, motioning to a grungy stairwell around the corner.
After a dark climb up three flights of stairs I saw the boy's face, opening a hatch in the roof and holding out a hand to shake. He introduced himself as Tarek and we both climbed the wooden ladder to the top of the tower. His brother was just as happy to meet me, and just as happy as I was to meet real bird people in an actual bird tower. Islamic Cairo spread beneath us in the dusk light, with the enormous Sultan Hassan Mosque silhouetted to the southwest. The boys got back to work, ignoring me as I paced around the platform.
The bird people were small, as I'd imagined. Tarik was 16 while his brother looked about 12. He said they'd been bird-handlers since their earliest memories, and that the same went for their fathers and their fathers' fathers. Perhaps even much further back in time, considering pigeon has been an Egyptian treat since the Pharaohs. Tarik explained that their jobs, at least as boys, were picked out for them long before they were born. Lucky for them, they both felt passionately about birds.
As the younger one busied himself with the flag, Tarek began opening a series of small hatches that lined the tower. Pigeons scurried out from their feeding cells and shot into the air just as fast as he opened them, one by one, until they were all empty and the two boys stood tracing the circling flock with affectionate eyes, whistling and pointing out familiar birds as if they knew them all by name.
When I emerged from the stairwell I continued up towards Sultan Hassan in the fading light. I'd put a face to the bird people but there remained something mysterious about the things they did in their fragile, stilted towers. Dozens of other towers and red flags across the old city now competed with Tarek's, and strange whistles followed me down to the mosque.