A Trini in Africa - Arrival in Egypt
By Natalie Williams, now in Egypt
As I stood on the balcony of the hotel to which we were evacuated, my eyes transfixed upon the skyline, seeing millions of red, black and white flags flowing in the winds of the sweltering heat.
This imagery had a huge impact on me and I did a double-take.
These flags were the same colours as the national flag of my home country of Trinidad and Tobago.
But I was not in Port of Spain. Nowhere near it on the map.
This was Cairo - the capital of Egypt - Africa’s oldest city and one experiencing its second wave of civil unrest, if not civil war.
What was even more worrying is that these red, black and white flags were being held up by nearly 19 million very angry and frustrated Egyptians.
And these flags would become a symbol of war for protesters on both sides – those calling for the reinstatement of their ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the millions who wanted him ousted in the first place, after a year of unfulfilled promises of a better life for ordinary Egyptians.
Moving to civil unrest
On the ground, it was a popular military coup that removed President Morsi from power.
So round-the-clock global news coverage of the violence in Tahrir Square, Alexandria and many Cairo districts, as well as all the fall-out of a society gripped by civil unrest, is how life began for my family in Cairo.
Since that fateful 3 July ousting of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, battles have continued and more than 60 people have been killed in clashes with the military, who are now a daily fixture throughout the capital.
Heavily armed military personnel and their tanks are everywhere – at popular bridges, Tahrir Square, the numerous road blocks, petrol stations, outside media houses and main government buildings, to name a few.
Settling into life in Cairo was never going to be easy and it must be said that things started off pretty well.
We had the good fortune of waiting for our permanent home at a fantastic hotel, which also happens to be home to Cairo’s largest collection of art, by both contemporary and established Egyptian artists.
So immediately upon my arrival in Africa’s oldest city, I was able to enjoy dozens of works of art and sculpture in my flip-flops for free, up close and personal.
Nearly 100 beautifully framed pieces of art, all to my own personal enjoyment in the most stunning surroundings.
Nothing fills me with more pleasure (OK, early days to say this, actually).
And there was another simple daily visual treat.
Stunning displays of the most spectacular tropical flowers reminiscent of my Caribbean childhood dominated the grand entrance to our temporary accommodation on the banks of the River Nile.
Beautiful heliconias, hibiscuses, orchids, vibrant flowers of all descriptions adorned every table-top surface the eye could see.
So a pretty good start to life in Egypt, if you ask me.
Then on the second day in Cairo, reading the morning paper and struggling with a strong Turkish coffee (the preferred brew of the locals - when in Rome and all that), I spot a bright spark amongst all the doom and gloom of violent clashes of the night before.
To my surprise and utter delight, there is a screening of the Bob Marley film in the deepest, darkest alleys of Cairo, and this Trini in Africa determined there and then to reunite Marley and Me – risking life and limb.
Our bravado to seek out Bob Marley in Cairo might have something to do with the first evening the Wise One and I took a walk along the Corniche or Nile waterfront.
We were stopped in our tracks at the sight of a row of the most majestic, ancient Banyan trees.
These stunning trees scream "the Caribbean" to the Wise One, having spent so many years posted there.
He was the first to recognise the Banyan trees gracing the Cairo waterfront and they never fail to transport his mind back to the region – for me, it’s the heliconia flower.
But on this day, these Banyan trees lifted our spirits and strangely filled us with so much comfort about starting life in this volatile, teeming city, now being torn apart by civil unrest within days of our arrival.
Welcome to Cairo
Somehow this Caribbean-Cairo connection felt right and brought us a strange comfort, despite all the chaos surrounding us.
And standing there, marvelling over this discovery on our first evening in Cairo, we heard a God-awful screech of car brakes.
We then see this large, sweaty, smiling man dodging oncoming cars, zigzagging his way through horn tooting, chaotic traffic and Arabic swearwords, coming towards us from his abandoned car left in the middle of the road.
Trying to understand his broken English and enchanted by his beaming face, we accept his business card and words of assurance that “me toorist operator, Egyptologist and taxi driver for you”.
“Me very safe and me not crazy man, madam. It would be my pleasure to show you Cairo.”
With hindsight, I would like to say that fate brought us together with our taxi driver who would take us to the screening of Marley – a film by Kevin MacDonald and the latest offering on this Caribbean legend Bob Marley – a documentary film the Wise One and I have wanted to see for some time, but couldn’t fit in before our departure to Cairo.
In search of Bob Marley
Ignoring all diplomatic travel advice about moving around Cairo, the next evening we are collected by a still smiling "toorist operator, Egyptologist and taxi driver" Nasser, after he jostles to get through the beefed-up hotel security checks now dictated by the revolutions in the nearby Tahrir Square, and off we go to find Marley.
We were taking a few risks as well.
One “risk” was simply going to any Marley film other than the one made by our friends, the London-based film-maker, Esther Anderson and her partner Gian, which is currently making the rounds at film festivals all over the world.
And what a story Esther’s film tells – her documentary chronicles Bob Marley before he became a legend and their romance, using never-before seen photos and rare footage of the legendary reggae singer before he grew his infamous dread locks and before he truly became a mega-superstar.
This footage "went missing" for 30 years and remarkably made its way back to Esther, who has been enjoying success with it all over the world.
So, in essence, I was checking out the competition from a safe distance, just in case Esther felt inclined to cuss me up about supporting the "Babylonian forces and pirates dey who rob she".
So with the Wise One happily in tow, we head off to find Marley.
Nasser navigates traffic while holding a steaming hot cup of Egyptian mint tea in a glass with no handle.
There are no lanes, no right of way, no rules, no order, endless horns for the entire drive and near-collisions every 10 minutes or so.
I pray in every language I remember, to Allah and every God known to mankind to spare our lives.
The Wise One and I pressed into each other, holding hands in the back seat (seat-belt missing), gulping hard and all the while muttering about “the things we do for Caribbean culture”.
Then Nasser takes a turn down the tiniest lane, lined with dozens of hole-in-the-wall shops and food vendors.
We involuntarily squeeze into each other even more, as this is a narrow lane I swear no vehicle on the planet is meant to navigate.
And it gets worse.
Half way along this tight lane, two dozen Egyptian men are perched on boxes and benches looking up to the sky.
In fact, they are enjoying an evening football match and we are whizzing past just as a goal is going through the nets.
But wait for it.
The crowds of men wave to us, sending back even more beaming smiles.
Welcome to Egypt
And as eyes peer in to the car windows, we hear Arabic shouts of “Welcome to Egypt, my friends” and it is a surreal moment, slowed down in my mind’s eye, as we squeeze through this narrow lane which was our driver’s short cut to the venue for the Marley screening.
Welcome to Egypt indeed – despite the television pictures and global news coverage of violent protests, here are some of the warmest, friendliest people in the Middle East.
Dina’s hostel, where the Marley film is to be screened, is a sight to behold. Slightly derelict and dodgy, and where the second "near-death experience" would follow when we travel in an ancient, worn elevator (the film was on the eighth floor, man).
But what a wonderful evening – bobbing our heads and tapping our feet to Bob Marley’s famous tunes in a room full of strangers.
The Wise One pulled me closer and beamed at me, and I beamed at my region.
There I was, A Trini in Africa, feeling extra special that, despite all the troubles of the civil unrest outside, a room full of strangers had come together to celebrate a great man with a great message of one love – a unifying force, well known for his denunciation of that deadly mix of politics and violence.
That evening, with guns going off in the distance, the Caribbean had come to a troubled Egypt.
And I wanted to be no place else on earth.
Natalie Williams is a journalist and chidren's fiction writer. She has been writing about her European travels as Trini in Europe for Caribbean Intelligence©. For more of her earlier travel blogs, click here.
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