Chasing al-Mustansir

In true gap yah fashion, I have had a fair few memories of moments on my travels (yah I kneuw, pretty lean. I was seu high, Boatros and me were doing some serious doob. Haha, MATE. etc.) when I was struck with an overwhelming sense of doubt as to the accuracy of the formation of my own cultural and historical ideas, and perhaps specifically a sense that my own knowledge was just suddenly so lacking. A rare moment indeed, when my surroundings caused a total dearth of the usual flood of sheer liquid nonsense normally unleashed on the unsuspecting world when I open my mouth to say something. Thing is, my brain normally expresses these notions a wee bit more lucidly than that.

This was what I thought, though, as we had just felt the need to blag our garrulous Copt taxi driver down the equivalent of about 20p on the agreed fare across the morbidly congested centre of Cairo and crossed Midan ‘ataba, past which no four-wheeled vehicles might venture, heading for the deep, black pudding and whisky-free bowels of mediaeval Islamic Cairo. ‘Hāzā Muskī?,’ I asked, in my inquisitive Levantine, of an eight year old boy carrying his weight in sheep’s brains, and as he confirmed my suspicions with a brusque ‘Ah’ we vanished into an altogether different world.

All of a sudden those confused thoughts which I was just confusedly trying to express came to the fore in my mind filled with confusion as we walked through this tiny street utterly saturated with humanity. Hijabs were everywhere, and not a single woman’s hair could be seen. Vendors hawked their cheap clothes and shoes. Raw sewage flowed liberally under our dusty boat shoes (yah mate, SEU fierce). The air was thick even here with that grotesque and quintessentially Cairene smog. Then, all of a sudden, just to make the moment, our nearest muʾaḏḏin called out ẓuhr – and all of a sudden in turn Halim’s dulcet tones faded from radios, yielding to that ubiquitous creed. God is the greatest indeed, it seemed.

I sit here now scoffing a bacon roll with broon sauce and think back to that most unusual Wednesday morning two months ago and wonder how it is that places and cultures can be so different. But we should dwell instead, though, on how super cool I am for being a bridge between these and being able to get by in and understand that other world of them Saracen and Mohammedan types.

Al-Azhar, though. Let’s see that picture again.

The great mosque-university was one of our first destinations and certainly our most crucial that day, and the oldest continuously functioning university in the world certainly didn’t disappoint. ‘This was the centre,’ I asserted, much as I had in the awe-inspiring Umayyad Mosque in Damascus: the centre, this time that is, of Shia learning, indeed of some of the most distinguished scholarly and literary achievements of the mediaeval world. When the Fatimids first established Cairo as it’s called today, named (‘the victorious city’) after their triumph in war, and first built this institution, I wonder if they knew that they were creating one of the most intellectually outstanding places ever to have existed, and one of the most mind-bogglingly replete with history in every tiny aspect of its architecture and involvement in the lives of so many historical figures. Everyone who’s anyone in mediaeval Islam seems to have a named qibla in al-Azhar.

I’ll spare you a whole blog about al-Azhar, though (or maybe that was why you were here in the first place, cock in hand). But the whole place is so astonishingly replete with stories. Stories of thought, as so many thousands of students have walked before us through these lazy colonnades; stories of filial piety, as Caliphs’ sons sought to inter their predecessors in this great centre of learning; stories of adventure, as Ibn Baṭūṭa himself had stayed here studying on his lengthy travels, which took him from the Atlantic to China and Indonesia in the high middle ages. But now it’s so quiet: somehow, incredibly, the masonry, the atmosphere and the wizened scholars, contemplating the finer points of Qur’anic exegesis, seem to absorb even the cacophony of car horns from the nearby ring road and bawling vendors just outside the mosque itself.

After seeing numerous mosques no less worthy of comment but less immediately famous and historically influential, we thought to stop for a nargileh and some coffee. Just off the square containing Hosayn’s mosque we sat outside, smoked and chilled out. I thought back most immediately to when I sat in rather similar circumstances outside the citadel of Aleppo one similar Autumn day in 2009, and my thoughts at both times had been based around some unstructured notion of how desirable it would be for this ancient city and her culture somehow to involve and integrate me to the fullest, completely imbibing my spirit and mind, transcendentally subsuming me entirely. Then the headache kicked in and I realised I’d had enough tokes on the water pipe.

We came out of the old city and took a taxi to the bus station in order to book our journey to Luxor. A few minutes after stepping in the car, we were all of a sudden returned to the real world of a modern metropolis, stuck in a traffic jam extending as far as the eye could see in both directions. As car engines went off, however, and with the futility of honking horns evident to all, silence descended: that same silence I relished in al-Azhar. But a few minutes passed, and suddenly all was go again, and drivers resumed their horrifyingly dangerous sprints of interspatial exertion, probably to cafes where they would sit for hours over loose leaf tea and thirty cigarettes. Cairenes seem to be all for these extremes: the city is alternately a feast and a famine of being lurched frighteningly from one place to another, only once there to conduct oneself in the most calm, even apathetic, manner possible.

al-Qāhira: ‘The Victorious’

A certain dual anticipation and apprehension frothed up inside me like a litre of stale special brew as the bus pulled out of Dahab.

To preface my thoughts on the transcendental nature of some places, I’d say that Cairo defies definition and categorisation. This great city has been vast in its size and population, as well as its cultural, architectural and political importance, for much of the second millennium. Today, the enormous urban area incorporates about twenty million people, a quarter of Egypt’s population, and indeed lower Egyptian colloquial dialect does not differentiate linguistically between Egypt and Cairo.

Even in only three days there, we saw an astonishing amount and variety of sites and people, and understood something of the gulf present even more in Egypt than Scotland between traditional lifestyles and mores and those of a more ‘modern’, here European-influenced, outlook.

Of course, we came to Cairo at the time of the now-infamous riots and ‘revolution’. Arriving in the centre of the city from the bus station and being informed eloquently by our taxi driver ‘zee peepoll… problemm…’, we were confronted with a line of riot police blocking the way into Mīdān ut-Taḥrīr. Undaunted, we found a hotel anyway and – fairly predictably – the pub was the first stop after that.

What a joyous exposure! Moments passed after we sat down clutching our grubby half-print glasses of Stella badly poured from the dirty bottles, and another round was proffered to a group of hard-lashing Russians in the centre of the faded colonial room in ḥuriyya, and they stood to down the bottles. An exhortative ‘haha, yall’!’ from the waiter was enough to encourage the one flagging participant to keep going regardless his self-inflicted difficulties. Spewing lager all over the place and its clientèle, he managed to polish off his twentieth Stella of the evening (it was about 1900) and chuck the bottle worryingly into a corner.

Of course, this was enough to leave us agog at the sheer spectacle. But then he was out for the count. And yet, he didn’t so much pass out as crumple: as if his bones were suddenly removed, and then a fraction of a second later he was down and out, vomiting profusely and bleeding from where he’d smashed his face into the table on the way down.

Lads on tour indeed. Then we went to the riot. Or of course, protest, as it was at that point.

We milled about for a bit, hated on lefties etc. as we were accustomed, said ‘KHegypt’ repeatedly, and noted perhaps most instructively the demographics of these supposedly revolutionary activities: rows of youths, many not yet sixteen by their looks, were garbed in police uniforms, nonchalantly munching on fūl and draining their boredom in diabetes tea. We had been encouraged earlier while having some scoff by some absolute specimen to join in the riots, a young middle-class joker with a wonderfully perfected mockney English accent wearing, as Ben so succinctly described, that ‘international student dress’ of vile grey jeans, canvas shoes and a t-shirt with nonsensical writing on it. ‘Well guys,’ he had adumbrated, ‘if you’re there yeah, the police can’t do anything yeah?,’ pausing to ponder the nature of physical existence carefully for a few seconds before adding ‘mate’.

Sensibly, we didn’t join in when things started heating up: a runout began, and we had the nouse to stand back, but then straight afterwards someone started a wee fracas and suddenly tear gas clogged the air like middle-aged pikeys’ farts on a Saturday morning in the Counting House. Forcing our way with alacrity to the police lines, we managed to push through before we were hit too badly and escape back up towards the pub (lads).

‘Sublime narrative technique there, Starky,’ I hear you suggest with a hint of sarcasm in your inner monologue, ‘but what are you getting at?’. Well, the point is that however interesting this ‘revolution’ might have been, a popularly instigated it was not. The gyppo we met in the kushari joint epitomised the fanbase of this assault on and yet also of tyranny, namely middle-class students whose gripe in society was less the trek they had to make to fetch typhoid-ridden water in the desert every single morning or the relentless persecution directed against Copts and Nubians, more not being allowed free access to blogspot and having to pay 10p too much for a can of coke. Boo fucking hoo.

We’ve been making a big fuss in the British lefty press (well, ‘they’) and news more generally of the revolution changing things and getting rid of the tyrant. But the real, if more absract, tyrant is not Mubarak but the enforced cultural unity of Arab authoritarian republics. Enforced, that is, because of course the ‘Arab’ in ‘Arab Republic of Egypt’ means specifically a contemporary and contrived Arab Muslim cultural identity which we quickly discovered cannot be fairly applied to Egypt, with its ancient Bedouin nomad cultures, misrepresented Nubians, mysterious Berber oasis peoples and oppressed Copts, quite apart from the strong Shia inclinations of much of the Muslim population. Our voyage to Egypt was one of relaxation and boozing, yes, but also informal ethnic and cultural discovery and analysis.

Within this Arab Muslim identity, however, are many important facets and historical oddities: especially in this great city of the Fatimids…

Generic title about the Sinai

Flying in to Sharm ash-Shaikh (jokes about Sharm ash-Shit, ash-Shabaab, ash-Shark attack, etc.), we went up to Dahab on the east coast of the Sinai on the first night, and were struck in the first instance with the desolation of the place.

Panorama shots of desert never really work unfortunately – especially not at night when we got there, and from a car – but it was this barren, alien landscape which struck me first, and indeed reminded me of that time I went walking from Mar Mousa at the same sort of time of year. Arriving at Dahab, I suppose our first thoughts were of how we could see all the Bedouin cruising around in the jalabiyyas and koofiyyas, intermingled with the numerous travellers and divers also cruising around the town. A mosque was filled with middle-aged men in traditional garb performing sujud, a bizarre juxtaposition with the young arab, presumably working the in tourism trade, wearing flip-flops and a Hollister vest clinging to a can of special brew.

An instructive analysis of the tenacity of Bedouin culture is that it manages to persist in its mores and dialect despite being not-so-recently settled in the Syrian Jazira and exposed in south Sinai to a fair few tourists.

The next day saw us take a trip out to St Catherine’s monastery and Mount Sinai itself, of Ten Commandments fame.

It was an interesting church, and we saw some cool icons. But in the absence of pictures I’ll save my commentary on aspects of the Coptic artistic tradition until later (and you can breathe a sigh of relief). Perhaps one of the more intriguing encounters with a native was had even at this early stage, as we were required to have a Bedouin guide to take us up the mountain, due partially to security concerns.

This SaliH lad had a few things to say. The usual conversational overtures of where from, what name etc. proved quite illuminating, as after revealing our nationality asking whether he was Egyptian yielded a curt ‘la,’ followed by that most iconic phrase ‘ana bidawiyy’ (I’m a Bedouin). We understood that the Bedouin live in isolation from the rest of the country, indeed fully settled Arabs generally, but that this man would deny his Egyptian nationality and instead profess his cultural tradition to be a sort of citizenship was something else. This was followed by his opinions on the brewing political trouble on the Nile, as when I quizzed him on the earlier goings-on in Cairo, what with a man setting himself of fire and murmurs of support for the Tunisian revolution, his response was that ‘the Egyptians’ are kicking up a fuss, and the matter was soon enough abandoned after some general expressions of apathy.

Some of the views we got on the way up the mountain were pretty impressive…

… however poorly they might translate into photographic format.

Perhaps a linguistic paradigm for the Bedouin. As we came around the mountain on our aspect, we passed a spring, around it a modicum of greenery in the harsh beige of the desert rock. ‘The spring was the core of society,’ SaliH opined, and went on to explain something of the old ways. It makes sense the a people living in such a hostile environment would attach a sort of cultural and social – and thus linguistic – importance to the key factors of survival, and sure enough I thought for the first time about the word ‘ayn, in Arabic ‘spring’, or a water source in the desert generally. It also means an eye, as it is the name for a letter which exists solely in the Arabic language, and metaphorically can be used for a particularly dear lover. ‘People of the ‘ayn’ is a not-uncommon expression to describe the Arabs. We might wonder whether this is just because of the uniqueness of that strange sound in their language, or because of a former wit suggesting both that and the quintessence of water in the desert for groups of camel herders in the deserts of late antiquity.

The summit provided more super cool views. And a fair few more of those interesting juxtapositions which we love so much.

Bedouin playing backgammon outside a chapel was a great shot in itself, but my inspired companion Ben offered an unstructured thought as he supped a dodgy can of Port Said-made coke with his feet dangling down the hillside on the nature of globalisation, circumstance and history’s echoes in the present. Indeed, I have often read contemporary Muslim thinkers’ ideas on the appropriation of unfamiliar literary and architectural styles into the Arab Islamic psyche in the first decades of the Umayyad caliphate, and so another example of Arabs seeing the good in what lefties hate is the side-by-side selling of coke and now that all-too-familiar gritty Turkish coffee on the Sinai hillside.