Going To Cairo, A Story About Coffee, a Poem

October 22, 2012

A friend recently posted a silhouette of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul with an invitation to guess what it was. it is one of the most famous buildings in the world and its silhouette is unforgettable. I have never visited Turkey, but I did go to Cairo a few times and on one memorable occasion in the fall of 1993 visited the Muhammad Ali mosque in Egypt. It stands on a bluff overlooking the city, next to a very interesting military museum where in the courtyard stand several MiG fighters, some old tanks.

Kairo Mohammed Ali Mosque

Kairo Mohammed Ali Mosque

Inside you can view immense dioramas of famous battles where the Egyptian forces roundly defeated (sic) those pesky Israelis. The dioramas where contracted to a Korean firm. North or South I could not tell, but the Hangul signature was quite prominent.

The experience of visiting Cairo was intense. I was hosted by my agent, Sami Macari, a Coptic Christian, whose wife worked at the French embassy. He had two daughters and one day they took me to Giza to see the Pyramids. We spoke in stumbling French; my schoolboy version not quite matching their young fluency. It made us all laugh a great deal. But all the while the city was quietly speaking to me of its past and its tense present.

Coming back to my hotel one evening I was greeted by a huge hubbub and wailing in the lobby. Just another wealthy family wedding, I was told. The following evening there was another wedding with the same ‘noise”. Women in the wedding party ululating.

In a scene almost out of a movie, one morning as I was eating an excellent breakfast a hotel staff person came scurrying over to tell me that there was an important telephone call for me in the lobby. He was very nervous about this important call. And yes, there was a wooden phone booth in the lobby where I was to take the call. The personal assistant of the Minister of the Environment came on and said that the Minister wished to see me that morning at 10 AM. For a few minutes I was nonplussed until I remembered that I had called the NY office of an American-Egyptian friendship association mentioning that I would be in Cairo visiting my distributor, Sami, in another attempt to awaken interest in environmental monitoring in Egypt. I had no idea I could be so persuasive.

I called Sami, and he arrived in great haste and trepidation. I do believe he was scared. We rushed off in his battered car to the ministry building. We were frisked, X-rayed and asked to wait in a very ordinary room. An aide came in said that his Excellency would join us in a minute and would we like some coffee? Of course we would. It would have been the grossest insult not to have at least accepted the offer. A few minutes later the Minister enters with another aide. We talk about the importance of the environment, of the value of American friendship and so on. Sami is not saying much but obviously enjoying the coffee. We are offered more coffee. It is served in small cups with much brown sugar and was intensely perfumed. There is a hand signal one makes in Cairo that shows you like the coffee and would welcome more. I cannot recall it but I am sure Sami was making it.

After fifteen minutes of pleasantries, the Minister indicated that he has had enough and the aide ushers us out. In the courtyard parking lot Sami stopped me as we walked to the car and said in very serious voice, “That coffee was very good”.

Here is the poem that my visit to the wondrous City of Cairo inspired.

Going to Cairo

I thought it would be more romantic than this.

I thought it would strangle me with its strangeness

Walk up to me with a sword in its oriental mouth

And bump into me,

Jolting me out of my occidental seat into the stinking dust of the gutters.

I thought the Mohammed Ali mosque would wrestle me to the ground with its shocking bare immenseness.

I thought my nostrils would burn with the assault of unnamed spice.

I thought my ears would crumble with the muezzins call at noon,

When all the dogs in Cairo enter a canine Koran reading contest.

I thought the pyramids would crush me with too much history and indifference

I thought the city of the dead would turn my gut over in its emptiness and blank windows

I thought the Nile would bewitch me and turn my blue blazer to Joseph’s coat

I thought Tuten Kamens chariot would run over me

I thought so much and I thought so much

That it brought me here where I would not be except for Cairo

For Cairo was a poetic enema

And purged some foolishness from me.

She lightened my load

And with her sister Bombay

Will always be on my cerebral medicine shelf

To take in case of cabin fever.

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One Response to “Going To Cairo, A Story About Coffee, a Poem”

  1. Bob, this poem is really a wonderful response to your experience. It’s remarkable that you had a meeting with the Minister of the Environment! Thanks for sharing this!

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