My only trip to Africa north of the equator took place almost four years ago, at the end of 2005. I was on a journey along the crescent of the eastern Mediterranean; from Istanbul to the centre of Turkey, through Syria, to Beirut and back, and down through Jordan to the blue shores of the Red Sea. It was a bizarre and unforgettable trip, taking in humble cave churches and gleaming mosques, abandoned desert ruins and crowded souks. Egypt would be my final stop. From my plastic chair at a dockside café, I could see the distant peaks of the African coastline. It seemed to me at the time to be waiting for my return. Though to be honest, Africa cared very little about either my movements or myself—it was I who couldn’t wait to be back.
I would be reaching Egypt by ferry, and though it was a short journey, it felt strangely romantic to be approaching the continent by ship. Or at least, it had the potential of being romantic. The ship was perhaps too commonplace, too modern to fuel any fantasies: grey upholstery seats, and TVs blaring action movies in Arabic. I didn’t have to enjoy these movies for too long, however, before we were unloaded onto Africa. A thick blue light burnt into my eyes as I stepped off the boat; it reflected off the green-blue sea and against the golden hills of sand. I was running out of time before my departure ticket, and therefore I had no chance to see the Sinai Peninsula, unfortunately. So it was onto a bus, and straight off toward Cairo.
I had come to Egypt expecting the pyramids, expecting the Valley of Kings, expecting Luxor. But I hadn’t come expecting Cairo. My face pressed against the window of the bus, I looked out to see a city lit up in the night: towering mosques with spotlights; shoe shops and fruit stands and cafes glowing along crowded avenues; neon lights blared, the words ‘Coca Cola’ switching to Arabic script as the giant bottle emptied itself; and all these lights reflected in the murky silent Nile.
Over the next few days, I would come to see how strange and fantastic Cairo really was. It was so long ago that I no longer remember the route my days followed, instead, I can only picture a strangely incongruous mesh of images. The old pink museum, stuffed with sarcophagi and stele. Stylish student cafes, selling muffins and non-fat lattes. Souks packed with fresh fruit, caged ducks, and baskets of chilli peppers. Tacky hotel souvenir shops. A dusty old city, seemingly transported in tact from the pages of 1001 Arabian Nights. Even after all of the other places I have been, Cairo still seems one of the most unusual, the most distinct. It seemed to me a strange melding of the journey I had just completed, and the journey I was about to begin. I could see traces of Syria and Jordan in the culture, the architecture and the food, but I felt too that I was clearly on African soil. As if Africa had drifted like silt along the Nile, to be deposited at the foot of the Middle East.
It seems even stranger now, looking back to it from the quiet avenues and ordered apartment blocks of my home in Cape Town. It seems like it should be much farther away, on a far more distant part of the globe. But it sits on the continent as well, on nearly the opposite corner from Cape Town, reflecting back a very different Africa than what we see from here. Africa is but one story, and Cape Town and Cairo are merely two very different tellings.