Although we’d never met, I had several old friends in common with Berndt, a Swiss theatre owner, and looked forward finally to seeing him on his second visit to Egypt. I’d been abroad when last he came, and couldn’t help wondering if he’d appeal to me. But when he called to confirm our appointment, and asked if he could bring ‘Marwa, an Egyptian actress’, a certain tenderness in his voice cut short my speculations. I suggested he come alone so we could reminisce, but promised to meet his friend before he left.
Berndt was my age, slightly built and so soft-spoken that the flutter of the ceiling fan nearly prevented me from hearing him. We talked about our shared acquaintances and about Cairo. He asked if I knew a place to buy some bolts of cheap cotton for a set he was designing, and I made a few suggestions. Then, quite suddenly, he apologized, saying he needed to speak about something that was troubling him. He confessed he was in love with Marwa, that they’d grown close in Switzerland where she and her troupe had performed, that he had come to Egypt to be with her, only to learn she was in love with someone else.
He was quietly distraught. I guessed correctly that Marwa was young whereas Berndt, who had recently undergone bypass surgery, was not. The success of the operation and the encounter with this woman had given him a promising new lease of life. They met in Egypt, and he’d arranged her show in Geneva. She had never been abroad. Berndt had, sadly if understandably, taken Marwa’s love of life and discovery too personally. I consoled him as best I could.
Marwa wanted to remain friends, he said hopefully, and he saw her every day. On the next-to-last day he brought her over. She was lovely, perhaps 30, dressed in jeans, her thick hair pulled into a bun. I learned she was born in a farming village and had come to Cairo for university. She had taught herself English, had loved the theatre since childhood, and was determined to use the stage to show Egyptians to themselves, unflinchingly and unsentimentally.
The performance she was planning sounded brilliant, as did her description of the last piece she’d produced. She was vital, bright – and angry with her artist friends for not working as hard as she did, for being foolish instead of brave. She was also angry with the ossified Egyptian administration, for its disdain of art and freedom, its insatiable greed, and the way it suffocated youth.
‘I know the world is coming to Hell in the basket… we Egyptians are especially fucked,’ she said with feeling. ‘But even with our too many faults, I love this country. And I do not need to ask why, because there may be no good reason. Or else it is something in the people and in myself. Life is too hard, yes, but there is nowhere else that I could live. It doesn’t make sense, but do you see?’ Of course I did see, and had often questioned my own attachment to Egypt, and the reasons behind the fierce affection it inspired.
I glanced at Berndt while Marwa spoke, could see he admired her words although they cut him like a knife. He realized that her declaration of love for Egypt was aimed, whether consciously or not, at him, as proof of their incompatibility, and that he had furthermore helped her articulate this love by having unwittingly provided the necessary contrast. When I’d asked what she thought of the Alpine foothills where Berndt kept a chalet, Marwa’s eyes sparkled briefly. ‘It is a jungle,’ she said, referring to the forests, ‘like a fairyland. And you can walk for hours and not see people… It is very strange.’ But when she said ‘strange’, you heard ‘sad’.
Before leaving, Berndt gave me a bag he said contained a gift – some of the fabric he’d found for his set. He later wrote to say he was happy to meet me but generally miserable, and that he loved this girl ‘even though she is so lost’. She didn’t seem a bit lost to me, I replied, and suggested he take a few brisk walks in the jungle, although I knew it wouldn’t be that easy. Then I recalled his gift and had a look, and discovered a gauzy white cotton used here exclusively for making shrouds.