We first encountered Ahmed, our dragoman in Cairo, when he stepped forward to greet us at passport control. He was dressed soberly in dark suit, black tie, black shoes. Shaved head. Designer glasses. His manner was brisk and unsmiling. But now and again an engagingly complicit smile lighted his hawkish face to remind us that he understood as well as we that all is vanity.
He expedited the entry formalities then led us outside to a waiting people carrier and slid back the door for us. Ahmed sat up in front, beside the driver. The driver spoke no English and gave his full attention to the road ahead. Ahmed, on the other hand, was very comfortable with the language and liked to talk. The hotel was on the far side of the city.
‘Welcome to Cairo. What do you think of Cairo traffic? It is the worst in the world. If you will notice, there are no rules. Can you tell me which is the fast lane? You cannot. Every lane is the fast lane. Traffic lights? What are these? They are just for decoration — like Christmas. I have friends who have been to Mexico, to Athens, to Rome. They say that Cairo traffic is worse. What are you doing? That seat belt is maybe not working. Sorry. But don’t worry! Amr is a very good driver. He is a Christian. A Copt. I am Muslim, he is Christian. You are surprised? Egypt is a very old country. We respect one another. We respect other religions. We are not Iraq.
‘Please smoke if you want to. Please. Go ahead. In Egypt the people make the rules, not the government. We don’t respect the government. The Egyptian government is 100 per cent corrupt. In other countries the government is 10 per cent corrupt or maybe 20 or 50 per cent. Here in Egypt it is 100 per cent corrupt. I am telling you.
‘Mubarak is a piece of s***. He is nothing. Noth-thing. You know what we call Mubarak? Rameses the Third. You have heard of the Pharoah Rameses the Third? Rameses the Third ruled Egypt for 69 years. Mubarak wants to beat him. We don’t care about the government. Excuse my language. We don’t give a s*** about them. Egypt is a police state, but the government is scared of the people. So we ignore them and make our own rules. You see how even traffic as crazy as this stops for this one old woman? We respect each other. But we don’t respect the government. Please. Go ahead and smoke if you want to.
‘Now we are passing through a graveyard. Many tombs. Many dead people. Look. On both sides, a huge graveyard. The biggest graveyard in Cairo. This road was very controversial when it was new. So many children live in this graveyard there are now two schools. You want some fresh pollution? Let me wind down the window a little and let in some fresh pollution. Why should we stop smoking in Cairo when we breathe in smoke all the time. We need cigarettes to flavour the smoke a little.
‘If you look on the right, this is the mosque of Mohammed Ali. Not the boxer. The ruler. Very famous mosque. I think that the traffic today is worse even than usual. By the way that man drives, he is Russian. So many people are killed driving off this bridge at night, the police close it after midnight. We need a better one. But let me tell you what will happen. In Saudi Arabia if they want to build a bridge, in six months they have a shiny new bridge. In Syria when they want a new bridge, it is completed after two years, but the quality of the bricks has been compromised because of some government corruption. In Egypt all the money is stolen and the bridge is not even started.
‘But we don’t care about the government. We are an ancient people. A tolerant people. A peaceful people. Europeans ask me if Cairo is safe. It makes me laugh. Cairo is safe. You can walk around and even if you are a sexy woman no one will touch you. If you want help, everybody will rush to help you. My friend went to Paris and was robbed on the street by a woman with a knife. In Paree! This woman who robbed her had metal objects in her face: here, here and here. Like a circus. This would never happen in Cairo. Is it safe? Don’t make me laugh. Now we are crossing the Nile.’
I looked down at the sacred Nile, about a mile wide at this point, confident already that I was going to like Egypt very much indeed.