Exhausted with Cairo, I prescribed myself three months in Prague to complete a demanding writing assignment. No-one understood why I had to travel with 35 kilos of books. ‘Can’t you get them on the internet?’ friends asked. Not these, I told them; besides, I scribble in the margins, underline, highlight and pepper the books with Post-it notes. I remember passages by their position in the beginning, middle or end and flitting through the pages helps me think. In short, the book’s physicality serves memory and inspiration.
On my return to Cairo I went to the airport to retrieve the bags from a place called ‘Cargo Village’. I had to show my ID at the entry gate, where the veiled woman in charge checked my purse to make sure it contained no camera. I could understand why they didn’t want pictures. The entrance was littered with house-sized canvas bags split at the seams and leaking their innards. Observing the orphaned crates stranded amidst parked cars, the battered forklifts and men in their makeshift uniforms scurrying about, shouting and waving papers, I tried, unsuccessfully, not to worry.
My air-freight company was a wooden hut with ancient PCs and counters whose laminated tops had been picked to splinters by nervous or idle hands. I was introduced to a gentleman with beautiful teeth and a threadbare corduroy jacket who would usher me through the intricate process of redeeming the bags. ‘Nothing new?’ he repeatedly asked, referring to their contents. Just old things, I reassured him. In the course of the next three hours we walked from one end of Cargo Village to the other, standing in line before the sign-less windows of a dozen ramshackle huts where stamps and permissions were issued. Eventually we entered a warehouse abuzz with forklifts and shouting labourers, stacked ceiling-high with boxes, and somewhere, please god, my bags.
The centre was apparently a clearing area, flanked by the desks of bored, down-at-heel bureaucrats, and littered with portions of boxes and crates, the plastic bands used to wrap them and massive chunks of Styrofoam. I watched several big boxes being gleefully ripped apart by the old labourers as if they were Christmas presents. The bureaucrats looked on: one picked his nose, another spoke loudly on the phone, a third hollered at one of the forklift drivers. Indeed, everyone seemed to be shouting; it made me want to shout myself. Instead, I sat on a bench and ate a banana. I was reluctant to add the peel to the trash on the ground but one of the workers genteelly took it and walked away, spitting on the floor en route.
An hour later, my helper reappeared with an aged but burly worker hauling my bags, one green containing clothing, the other brown and packed with books. A large woman with a clipboard lumbered over and had the worker hoist them onto the bench beside me. ‘Open!’ she ordered. He unzipped the clothing bag and, thrusting his hands deep within, yanked out half my wardrobe. ‘Please, not like that!’ I objected. ‘It will only take a minute,’ the woman said without looking at me, like a doctor giving a child a needle. The man’s face went blank as he rummaged through my things, disgorging fuzzy sweaters and a large furry hat. An upended bag of stockings fell to the floor like writhing snakes. A white bra and panties flitted down beside it. Mercifully, the woman instructed the man to open the other bag.
There was no space for his hands in this one; he stepped back as if repelled by its solid contents. The woman drew closer and peered inside suspiciously. Books are nowhere near as fun as lingerie. But they weren’t finished with them yet. The woman took one off the top and walked away. My helper said she had to show it to her superior, ‘like a sample’. I didn’t bother asking why. One book was apparently as good as another, in this case an anthology of ancient Egyptian literature. The woman returned and gave me the all clear. Smiling, the shipping agent said ‘welcome to Cairo’, since now I’d officially arrived. He accompanied me to the parking lot and helped get the bags in the car. I gave him a 50 pound tip ($9) which was probably around five to ten per cent of his monthly salary, but he eyed it mournfully and asked for more. ‘Welcome to Cairo,’ I told him, and drove off.