‘You’ll never guess who I had on the back of my camel last week,’ said Abubakar Karim Urabi, taking a drag on his hookah and leaning back into the padded vinyl of the booth.
‘President Mubarak,’ offered Fadil the taxi driver.
‘More interesting than him.’
‘Brad Pitt,’ suggested Masud the barber.
‘I know,’ exclaimed Ishaq the butcher, slapping his hand down on the table, and sending shockwaves through the coffee. ‘That famous singer from Aswan. You know who I mean…What’s his name?’
Abubakar Karim Urabi shook his head. ‘It’s no one famous.’
‘No one famous?’ said Masud the barber. ‘Then how are we supposed to guess who he is?’
‘He?’ Abubakar Karim Urabi allowed a smile to play at the corner of his lips. ‘I never said he.’
‘So it’s a woman,’ said Ishaq the butcher, proving that his reputation for stating the obvious was well-deserved.
Abubakar Karim Urabi nodded.
‘My question still applies,’ said Masud the barber. ‘How are we supposed to guess her name if she’s not famous?’
‘I don’t expect you to guess her name; just her…shall we say…occupation.’
‘Belly dancer!’ exclaimed Ishaq the butcher.
Fadil and Masud exchanged glances. Abubakar kept his inscrutable half-smile.
‘Brain surgeon,’ said Masud the barber. ‘And you knew she was a brain surgeon because she told you your brain damage is inoperable.’
This drew appreciative noises from the other two.
‘I reckon she was a police officer,’ said Fadil the taxi driver, ‘and she arrested you for being the teller of the tallest tales in the whole of Cairo!’
Masud and Ishaq laughed.
‘So I take it you don’t want to hear my story.’
‘Of course we want to hear it,’ said Fadil the taxi driver.
‘Go on, Abu,’ said Masud the barber. ‘We love your stories, don’t we, Ishaq?’
‘Love ‘em’, confirmed Ishaq the butcher.
Abubakar Karim Urabi took another drag on his hookah and paused for a moment before exhaling the smoke gently through his nose. ‘It was late in the day,’ he said. ‘The last of the tour buses was leaving the car park, its wheels kicking up a dust storm and its exhaust pipe belching out thick black fumes. I was sitting on the ground, leaning against Salihah and enjoying a quiet roll-up, when a woman emerged from the clouds of dust and smoke and started walking towards me.
I played this little game I always play when I see a tourist approach. I guess which country they come from and which language they’re going to speak to me in. Most of the time it’s French, English or Spanish. I’m fluent in French and my English is pretty good, but I can only just scrape by in Spanish. Any other language and we’re reduced to the international language of signs, and I know I don’t stand much chance of charming a tip out of them.
Well, I put this one down as an ‘other’. She had dark skin, like an Ethiopian, and long black hair which she wore in plaits on either side of her face. As she got closer I could see her features were nothing like an Ethiopian’s; she had a long, thin nose, a high forehead and green eyes. I had no idea where she was from. I decided I’d wave her away with the international sign for ‘bugger off, I’m going home now’.
But before I got a chance do this, she addressed me in perfect Arabic.
‘Am I too late to take a camel ride?’
What I meant to say was, ‘Yes, I’m afraid you are. Come back tomorrow between eight and five.’ But the words that actually came out of my mouth were, ‘No, not at all. Let me just put the saddle back on Salihah here.’
‘I don’t need a saddle,’ she said. Before I could give her the usual warning about Salihah’s tendency to bite and spit, she’d taken the camel’s muzzle in her hands, and was staring into her eyes. Salihah grunted gently. Then the woman slid onto the camel’s back, and Salihah stood up without the usual five minutes of wheedling and cajoling.
‘So how does this work?’ the woman asked. ‘What do you usually do?’
‘I usually work with a group of other camel owners. We wait until all the camels have a rider, and then we leave in a caravan. We walk out into the desert for twenty minutes, then we stop for ten minutes so the tourists can take photos and so we can sell them camel key rings and pyramid pencil cases, and then we walk back.’
‘I am happy to follow your normal route, but I have no interest in buying souvenirs.’
So I took Salihah’s reins and walked out into the desert, towards the setting sun.
As we walked, I started up my usual spiel. It felt good to be able to do it in Arabic for a change. ‘The pyramid to our right is the pyramid of Khufu, also known as The Great Pyramid, because it is the largest of the three pyramids at the Giza necropolis. It is also the oldest, having been constructed —’
‘I have no interest in the ruins,’ said the woman.
Well, that surprised me, I must say. In all my years doing this job, I’ve never heard anyone say that. Although I’ve seen a few people who looked as though they were thinking it.
‘So, what are you interested in?’ I asked. ‘The desert… the sunset…the camels?’
‘The lunar eclipse.’
I stopped walking and turned to look at her. ‘The what?’
‘The lunar eclipse. It will be visible…’ she looked at her watch. ‘…in 23 minutes and 47 seconds.’
‘I didn’t know there was going to be an eclipse.’
‘That’s not surprising,’ she said. ‘A lunar eclipse isn’t a noteworthy event. There are lunar eclipses at least twice a year.’
‘Well, they’re not always as good as this one. This is a total eclipse and most are only partial.’ She looked at her watch again, ‘We need to start moving again now.’
When we reached the usual spot where the caravan stopped, the sun was setting, dipping down behind the sand dunes in a shimmering orange haze. The woman was gazing in the opposite direction.
‘Look,’ she said.
Towards the east, between the pyramids, a full moon was rising above the city.
After a few minutes, the moon began to dim, a shadow appearing at one edge. As the shadow made its way across the face of the Moon, the Moon gradually changed colour, until it was a rich, brick red.
‘It’s amazing,’ I said.
‘Is this the first time you’ve seen a lunar eclipse?’
I nodded. ‘What about you?’ I expected her to say she’d seen dozens of them.
‘It’s my first time too.’
When we got back to the car park I broached the subject of payment. ‘I accept Egyptian pounds or American dollars.’
‘I don’t have either.’ She took off one of the bangles she was wearing. ‘Here, take this. It was my mother’s. She lived in Egypt for a while when she was younger, and she had an affair with a jeweller. He made this for her.’
I wanted to say thanks but no thanks, but before I could form the words, I found myself pocketing the bangle.
As the woman turned to go, I called after her. ‘Hey, if you’re so interested in lunar eclipses, and you know so much about them, how come you’ve never seen one before?’
‘Because you never see them where I come from.’
She thought for a moment before replying. ‘No moon.’’
‘No moon?!’ said Fadil the taxi driver. ‘You expect us to believe this woman was from another planet?’
‘I don’t expect anything,’ replied Abubakar Karim Urabi. ‘All I’m doing is relating what happened. Pure and simple.’
‘You must think we’re simple if you think we’ll swallow a story about aliens,’ said Masud the barber.
‘It was a good story, though,’ conceded Ishaq the butcher.
As usual, Abubakar Karim Urabi was the last to leave the coffee shop. As he was finishing his final mouthful of coffee, his phone rang.
‘Abu?’ It was Rudi, a friend of his from the Egyptian Museum. ‘Do you remember that gold bangle you gave me last week?’
‘Of course I do, Rudi.’
‘We’ve just got the results back.’ Rudi hesitated. ‘I hope you’re sitting down.’
‘It’s from the Old Kingdom, fourth dynasty, about 2,500 BC. The museum is prepared to pay you five hundred thousand US dollars for it. Are you still there, Abu?’
‘I was just thinking,’ said Abubakar Karim Urabi, ‘how every event in life is a mixture of bad news and good news. As far as this particular event is concerned, the bad news is that, from now on, it will always be my round at the coffee shop.’
‘And the good news?’ asked Rudi.
‘My friends will be much more likely to believe my stories.’
© Helen Lewis 2011