Sport 8: Autumn 1992
The GPO in Cairo is not signposted. As we stood outside, parcel in hand, wondering if it could indeed be the same building marked on our map, an Egyptian man of around 40 stopped beside us and asked if we needed any assistance. We explained.
'I am a lecturer at an agricultural college near here, and this is my lunch hour. You are in luck.'
Indeed we were, I mistakenly thought, as we entered a courtyard lined with a Kafkaesque series of counters.
Each counter was marked with elegant swirly Arabic calligraphy. Unlike every other sign I saw in Cairo, whether it be for a street, a softdrink or a shop, these did not have English translations.
The lecturer enquired at one counter, then another, then at a third, where we waited for 18 minutes in a queue, only to be told we were required to go to a separate office to get permission to send a parcel out of the country.
We walked around the building and delicately sidled around a giant puddle which filled an entire courtyard. 'Drainage problems,' the lecturer explained, as we clambered over a mound of deserted earthworks.
The 'office' in question I mistook for a derelict warehouse. We opened the barn-sized doors to reveal a group of youths in berets and patched black page 192 woollen uniforms, lounging around on the floor. One of them was absentmindedly drawing doodles in the dust of the floor with the muzzle of his rifle, a World War I vintage Lee Enfield. They eyed us curiously as we passed.
As we turned to mount the stairs, we were greeted by what I at first took to be a monumental modern sculpture, but then realised was a four-metre high pile of debris: wheels, engine parts, some bent and twisted rods, bald tyres, the whole melange coated with brown dust.
So thick and even was the icing of dust over the windows beside the stairwell, that at first I thought they had been painted out. I ran the tip of my finger over one to make sure.
At the top of the stairs was a wooden room, devoid of furniture or decoration. This in turn led to the 'office'—another room, bare except for a trestle table, behind which sat two women. We were fifth in the queue and waited for 15 minutes.
Was our parcel above or below five kilos?
'By sea or by air?' By sea.
'Write your name, address and passport number here, and here, and here,' ordered the younger of the two, handing me a form in triplicate, without any carbon paper.
In the meantime, a youth appeared and wrapped my parcel for a small fee. One of the women pasted on a stamp, wrote on the parcel and collected another fee.
'Now,' the lecturer explained, 'we must apply for permission to send the parcel out of the country.'
'I thought we just had.'
'Oh no, that was just to get it registered and weighed.'
Back down the stairs, over the pond, and down the street for half a block, was another similarly barren office, only with three rather grander desks with men seated behind them. At the central table sat a middle-aged man with pebble glasses and an open-necked shirt in a hideous riot of greens, yellows and browns.
Two more forms were to be completed, one of which came with an English translation, headed 'Application for the Viewing of Printed Material Leaving the UAR'.
So, he was an official censor. He ordered me to open the parcel so meticulously wrapped half an hour earlier. I showed him the dangerously seditious galley proofs for my cookbook.page 193
The censor didn't speak a word of English, let alone read it, so for all he knew the manuscript could have been details of Egyptian troop movements bound for the Israeli secret service. He beckoned a minion leaning against the door post, dressed in a jelabiya and turban, who took the parcel away and returned a quarter of an hour later with it done up with a cobweb of thick brown string, sealed at irregular intervals with blobs of tarry pitch. I grabbed the parcel impatiently and strode out, elated, to the counters in the courtyard where we had started out an hour and a half earlier.
While our friendly Egyptian flipped over the wad of documentation one by one and explained the details through the grille, I pulled out my wallet in eager anticipation.
The exchange went on for several minutes, until finally the lecturer turned to me and said the clerk had just told him there was no sea connection between Egypt and New Zealand. The parcel would have to go by air and our documents were thus invalid. We would have to repeat the whole process from beginning to end, in order to have this amendment entered on all five forms.
By this stage Kate was in tears. I sincerely thanked the lecturer for his help but explained I would dump the parcel in the nearest rubbish bin. So it was that Delectable Fruits Cookery for New Zealanders went to print uncorrected.
Our first truly edible meal was served us in the most unlikely of places, aboard the Cairo-Luxor train: roast chicken; an excellent pilaff, sliced aubergines baked in a thick, egg-enriched béchamel; and a truly delicious cumin-tinged yoghurt and cucumber salad, variations of which are to be found in just about every cuisine of the Middle East from the Balkans to India. Another pan-Arab favourite followed: a very sweet, gluggy rice pudding, sprinkled with coconut and sultanas, served with that symbol of US gastronomic imperialism, a can of Pepsi Cola.
By Cairo standards, our First Class carriage was clean: the now familiar patches of black grease were confined to the edges of the thick plastic seat coverings, and the canvas laid down over the carpet still showed some white.
Even more cheering was the succession of small mudbrick villages flashing past our window, free of rubbish piles and raucous signs and hoardings. Housewives in headscarves and three-quarter-length dresses chatted while their children played a popular game using an old tyre as a page 194 hoop, darting in and out amongst a stream of donkeys, horses and carts, and the odd camel.
Here was the Nile valley scene of popular imagination: in the foreground fields in lush bright shades of green, divided by neat hoed lines into a patchwork of smaller squares. Within each square were rows of miniature irrigation channels, some of bare soil, others in full crop, still other lying fallow. Set among clumps of much darker green palms were one- or two- storied, flat-roofed farmhouses. Then behind, the Sahara loomed up abruptly in the distance as a knobbly line of barren yellow hills, etched with rambling ravines, silhouetted against a clear blue sky.
Birdlife abounded: scores of a cheeky bird which resembled a stork hit with a mallet, a reddish-brown kingfisher, and swallows which flew up quite near to the windows of our carriage, veering up and back more deftly than any jet fighter to expose a shiny midnight blue belly turning iridescent green in the sunlight.
A number of late model tractors were at work, but equally there were plenty of water buffaloes, paired up in teams and pulling an ancient Egyptian plough held by men in turbans and jelabiya.
They were tending cabbage, cotton and field after field of melokhia (Corchorus olitorius), a mucilaginous green leaf which goes into Egypt's national soup. The making of it is thought to be depicted in Pharaoic tomb paintings. At its coarsest level, the leaves are simply boiled with a vegetable stock and taken out as lunch to the men in the fields.
Melokhia soup, however, has today become a sort of self-conscious symbol of Egyptian nationalism, a rustic dish in reaction to the cosmopolitan, decadent cuisine associated with King Farouk and the old regime. The chastened middle class now prepare melokhia soup also, albeit in a gentrified form, with meat stock as a base and flavoured with garlic and perhaps even the odd meatball.
Nearer Luxor, the sugar plantations began; as sunset approached, they turned an electric lime green.
Safely ensconced that evening at the Pension Riviera, we drank rum mixed with the local cane juice, a vile-looking murky brown liquid, cranked out on the street between the rollers of ancient wringers.
The label on the rum bottle read 'Better than Egyptian rum'. It is distilled and bottled in Alexandria.