Jeremy Clarke Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 13 December 2008

Brief encounter

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.

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