Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 13 December 2008

Brief encounter

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On our last evening in Cairo we were joined for dinner in the hotel restaurant by a local businessman who liked to socialise with the English tourists. He drew up the chair beside mine. The chair on his other side was vacant. The amplified music was too loud to permit general conversation across the table so the poor man was stuck with just me. Our table was a large one right next to the stage.

He was a small, calm, dapper man. Every thought, word and gesture was so carefully measured I wondered whether he might be addicted to tranquillisers. Everything that I said he pondered carefully, as though my words were laden with the wisdom of Solomon. Being essentially dull-witted, I’m not immune to flattery of this sort.

He also had a way of slowly turning his moist eyes on mine and searching them with a sustained intensity that I found disconcerting at first. But the frankness of his opinions, and still more his laugh — an unexpectedly high-pitched giggle — was disarming. He smoked cigarettes throughout the meal and the waiters supplied him with a clean ashtray for each one.

A crooner was on the stage when we sat down; one of those monumental, large-headed Egyptian men we’d seen everywhere. He was giving ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’ the works. Then he stepped down from the stage and went among the diners. To our table he sang, ‘I don’t care who’s right or wrong. I won’t try to understand. Let the Devil take tomorrow. Lord, tonight I need a friend.’ ‘Egypt’s answer to Kenny Rogers,’ giggled the businessman.

After Kenny Rogers, a gorgeous young woman came out and danced sinuously while balancing a flaming 16-branched candelabrum on her head. It was worth coming the 2,000 miles just to see Health and Safety issues flouted in such a spectacular manner. ‘This dance used to be a famous belly dancers’ dance in the 1920s,’ said the businessman. ‘Except the belly dancers were five times fatter.’

Next, a troupe of six dancers, male and female, all dressed as dolls, with coloured fans perched on their heads, came on and did a whirling dervish dance. ‘They are dressed like the candy dolls we give each other as presents to celebrate the birth of the Prophet,’ he said.

‘Are you a Muslim?’ I said.

He pondered. ‘Lately, I have come to the conclusion that organised religion is only for the incurious; for people who don’t want to entertain complications. I have tried Islam. I have also tried Christianity and Buddhism. Of the three I incline towards Buddhism. Today I look for heaven within myself: here, now, right at this moment.’ Then he offered me his recipe for achieving inner peace.  It consisted mostly of doing exactly as he pleased. Here, I thought, was just the kind of person I was looking for to answer a niggling question I had about the ancient temples we’d seen, and to which, so far, I hadn’t had a straight answer.

I came at it like this. The day before, I told him, we’d been shown over the great temple of Khonsu at Karnak. Huge. We passed between rows of colossal pillars until finally, at the far end, we came to a small inner sanctum, a holy of holies, in which stood a chest-high block of granite, a sacrificial stone, its surface polished by years of use to a smooth concavity. For over 3,000 years, by my reckoning, the ritual killings performed on this square yard of rock surface had been the main point of contact between the locals and certain deities. If the old gods gravitated only to certain sacred places in the world, then this, surely, was one of them. I extended a forefinger and lightly touched the cool, smooth surface, half expecting to feel a psychic jar — signalling perhaps that point in the novel of my life when the hero is afterwards cursed by one terrible misfortune after another.

Later I’d buttonholed the guide. ‘Is there any residual spiritual power here in these temples?’ I said. Tariq was more than a guide: he was a university-trained Egyptologist. But he was also a Muslim. There is no God but Allah. He looked at the floor then changed the subject. So now I put it to this agnostic businessman. Did he suppose there was anything still in those incredible temples that could disturb our post-Enlightenment certainties?

The moist eyes bore sadly and seriously into mine. He sighed a sigh that seemed to originate from the depths of his complicated soul. (Over his left shoulder, the troupe, now dressed as gypsies, were throwing out their limbs with abandonment.) ‘Let me tell you something I think you have been waiting many years for someone to tell you,’ he said. ‘You see my lips?’ I looked at them. They were thin and red with a pronounced v in the upper one. He pursed then pouted them at me. ‘I would give anything in this world — anything — just to kiss you.’