A Travellerspoint blog

Day 228 – Burkas and Belly Dancers

7th May 2012

sunny 35 °C

A taxi to the metro and the metro into town, we were already getting the hang of a city whose streets were filled with sedated drivers aiming for the speed of sound whilst embracing that sacred embodiment of sound, the horn. The British embassy would help; if they didn’t, who could? But once again we were idiots for thinking it. The British are a defunct empire run by high level business and bureaucracy that leaves those minions on the ground, the faces at the front, powerless to do anything of their own free will for fear of compromising the system or aiding terrorism.

We surrendered our phones and memory devices to gain entry to a building only to be told that they could/would not write a letter to say that we did not require visas to enter Tunisia. The minion wasn’t even allowed to stamp the Foreign Office website pages that we’d printed off in order to aid our argument. Our calculated pleading however stepped down its demands each time until all we were asking for was something with a telephone number on that we could hand to the Libyans to call the British. Such a small token from a couple who looked so tired, so innocent and forlorn; the chap must have felt that he had to offer us something. It was a meagre and final request and one that had come after we’d discreetly noticed the stack of official paper that lay next to his desk. He reached over and plucked one leaf of headed ‘British Embassy, Cairo’ A4 paper and passed it through; we had what we’d come for. If they wouldn’t write us a letter, the bloody citizens would write it themselves.

More coffee and sweet, sweet, rich, dark, moist and sweet, oh so sweet, chocolate cake and we headed back; via Tahrir Square to the Tunisian Embassy for another argument with a security guard who’d got his opening times mixed up. Tunisia were not going to be of any use. But we had eight pages of A4 with the visa requirements for British Nationals in Tunisia highlighted and a sheet of A4 officially headed stating that these documents were accurate and to call the British Embassy immediately if further confirmation was required.

Our plans were not yet desperate, but the Libyan hurdle had certainly slowed us down. For seven months we’d been talking about Libya, knowing it was uncertain, knowing it was potentially unsafe and knowing in reality that we would only know if it was a viable option when we reached Cairo. But we were in Cairo, and we had reached that fork in the road. There is something extremely pleasant about intentionally ignoring the danger ahead by focusing on your desired outcome; somewhere two kilometres or twenty minutes after that danger has passed. With every tick of the clock we began to question our decision to travel through the country, we increasingly wondered about safety, using phrases like ‘they won’t issue the visa unless it’s safe’ and ‘the rebels like the British, we freed them,’ in an effort to placate our growing concern. The difficulty of obtaining a visa was providing a pleasant distraction from what would come after its acquisition. We knew some bikers had come through already, they’d had no problems, why would we?

But there’s been gunfire and revolts in Benghazi; there was still regular gunfire, celebratory they say, in many of the main cities and Sirte was still a dangerous place to be. The foreign office website told us to avoid all but essential travel to some parts and to avoid completely everywhere else. But how many times had we read those little foreign office signs, red for bad, orange for fairly bad and green for head right in. We’d been in Nairobi when a few grenades turned it from yellow to orange. We’d narrowly missed shoot outs over a few cattle in Kenya’s north and had been in Sudan when the army had retaken their border town of Heglig, but never ever, have we really been in any danger, surely the foreign office have to err on the side of caution. Libya was a country trying to get back to normal and we stepped back inside the entrance to its Cairo embassy, an entrance we had still to pass, and once again we asked for Sabri. Thirty minutes later we had no Sabri, but, in his place, we had a Mustafa. And, Mr. Mustafa looked far more helpful than our ‘disavowed Syrian defector’ that had insisted on an unnecessary Tunisian visa. We explained our situation and gave Mustafa our passports our British letter and our Foreign Office print outs. He excused himself and told us he would return shortly. He did, and much to our delight, suggested that a visa would be possible, but, since it was late (one-thirty, embassy time) we would be better returning the following morning and using the other entrance. He promised that he would be nearby to assist us.

It was promising news but, without an actual visa the celebratory gunfire could wait. The most important thing was that they hadn’t said no. We suppressed our excitement and decided it was time to have a little bit of fun. All this work and no play had been tough and so we headed for the National Museum and spent an afternoon perusing hundreds of tombs and thousands of ancient artefacts including mummified rams, horses, birds, crocodiles and humans. Mummification was the way into the afterlife and if that was where you were going and you had the money then why not take your faithful friends? Naturally dogs, cats, sacred rams and birds topped the list but they’d even found the remains of a mummified elephant! We saw the incredible treasures of Tutankamun, the boy king, dead at 19, who had so much gold, it was, quite frankly, a bit ridiculous. His arms were covered in heavy gold bracelets, but that wasn’t enough, so they wrapped this gold in his first mummy outfit and then recovered his arms with gold bracelets on top of the other gold bracelets. He had an eleven kilogram solid gold head dress placed atop his head and shoulders; if you nicked it, melted it down and sold it to Argos for their 24 carat range it’d fetch well over half a million US and that was just his hat. Naturally all that goldsmithery was priceless and it was wholly spectacular. On his feet he wore solid gold sandals, over his fingers and toes he had solid gold finger and toe covers, necklaces, daggers, all the optional extras, in gold. His body was then placed in a gold sarcophagus, which was then placed in a second and then third gold sarcophagi. Only then was he placed in the stone sarcophagus and his treasure rooms around him filled with golden chariots, spare jewellery and anything else golden that he might need in the afterlife. His tomb was the epitome of success for any archaeologist with an inkling toward Harrison Ford-like qualities. Unearthing a truly priceless tomb was Howard Carter’s cause celebre; his career’s defining moment. The treasures were stunning and surely far more of a highlight than the three thousand year old corpses in the (additional fee) ‘Mummy Room.’ The National Museum at Cairo has but one real problem, it just has too much stuff. It’s like the spoilt kid that gets all he wants for Christmas, three years down the line his room isn’t big enough, the museum building struggled to contain it all. But it didn’t matter, the museum was fantastic, it was truly world class.

We wondered what they did with all the spare artefacts, priceless anywhere else, but abundant here. We laughed as a heavy looking wooden crate was carried awkwardly through the exhibit by two old men, wearing ‘janitor’ costumes and a slap stick look of the Marx brothers about them, escorted by two armed guards who were dressed head to toe in white but for their black jack boots, leather belt and berets. The sticker on the crate stated FROM; Belgium and TO; Cairo. That will be Egypt reclaiming all of its stolen antiquities then.

Filled with all the culture of an afternoon at a great museum we were clamouring for more. We hadn’t seen the pyramids properly yet, but they could wait, we had also set a date for a visit to the Cairo Opera House, but that too could wait. All these delights were on hold, because we had booked a dinner cruise. But not just any dinner cruise, our golden bedecked, touristic monstrosity was home to a lady, a lady who belly danced while the discerning sea farers nibbled on their koftas and tahina. The boat somehow managed to pull off the look of golden palace. It’s rich and intentionally ‘over the top decoration’ somehow stood its own as we wandered past seven foot canine monoliths prefabricated from fibreglass and sprayed gold. We had pre-dinner nibbles and drinks sat in a cafe on the banks of the Nile and we watched our vessel being readied. Somers was excited for more than just the belly dancer; she had prepared herself for an entire evening of people watching; she would not be disappointed.

We were the first on board and had a table for two in front, but not immediately so, of the stage. Samer, our campsite Airbus pilot, had told us that he’d taken his wife here on their anniversary. We were expectant. The room filled gradually and the buffet was served; a few western businessmen and their Egyptian colleague, several families, an English couple on holiday who were already videoing the occasion, a Russian lady, whose denim dress appeared intentionally designed not to fit, like a maternity dress on someone who is actually just overweight. The dress entered long before she did accompanied by her lover/fiancé/husband/escort and a number of burka clad ladies with their jacketed gentlemen alongside; oh what fun the latter were to watch.

There is something divinely comical about a lady who has chosen to strictly adhere to a religion that insists she must be concealed from head to toe and who is attempting to ‘stick to the rules’ whilst eating in a public place. We tried desperately to see how the food got from the plate to her mouth but were entirely unsuccessful and, anyway, were soon distracted by the excessively large breasts that appeared on stage as the band kicked up and our dancer shook far more than just her belly. Our dancer was no superstar but she was keen and her fake, ‘I’ve got something up my bottom,’ smile come grimace rarely left her face. Far more interesting was the couple we’d been watching earlier. The husband, surely aware of what he was doing when he booked a dinner cruise that included belly dancing as entertainment, had been instructed to turn away from the stage to face out across the Nile onto the far bank far away from the temptations that were shaking bilaterally behind him. He wasn’t allowed to watch and we giggled like children as he positioned himself so that he could sneakily watch the action in the windows’ reflection whilst his wife continued to defy physics and beam her food up from her plate, through the muslin guard and into her mouth.

After the belly dancer came a man in a huge orange skirt, in his hands he held four woven baskets. He began spinning the moment he arrived on stage and he continued spinning for the next ten minutes, throwing the spinning skirt above his head and holding the baskets in a variety of ‘exciting and dangerous’ ways, we watched, in mild appreciation and a degree of apathetic wonder, noting that our couple had permitted each other to watch this section.

The second act had our belly dancer back, in a slightly less revealing outfit, and she was dragging the Americans on stage to ‘shake their thang’, and touring the room having photos taken with willing guests. Though photographed, we didn’t make a purchase and, disappointingly, the real entertainment, our couple, had retired to the upper deck to avoid any further embarrassment.

We hailed a cab to take us back to the campsite whilst trying to work out what our couple had been thinking when they booked a dinner that would require an illusion to eat and a show that they weren’t allowed to watch. Our own expectations of a beautifully curvaceous lady dressed in silk and trimmed with gold, a lady who could mesmerise us with the shake of her belly and bewilder us with a smouldering look from behind her silken face mask, had been truly dashed. Our overly made up, slightly dysrythmic and slightly too overweight belly dancer hadn’t exactly entranced us, but we had certainly been entertained. We imagined that she was probably somewhere on the metro using a large coke to wash down a kebab as we raced through the Cairo night like cops in an eighties show.

Posted by ibeamish 09:53 Archived in Egypt

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