City of Dust

It was a time of dust. It was a time for decay.

The year was turning, slowly, from quiet winter to noisy spring – but Cairo doesn’t notice. The cars barricade the roads and buses blockade roundabouts. A woman sitting behind a cart of roasting chick peas, shoe shiners scrub, scrap metal merchants clatter from gutter to gutter and the dust settles around them.

He awoke with a choke. Thick mucus caught in his tonsils and he’s bolt upright hacking into his sheets. Scrambling for consciousness, scrabbling for a fight or flight response. This was the return to Cairo. The Hilton looked over into his room, across the Nile. The constant lazy motion of the Nile washing steadily to the sea, the constant frantic jerk of the cars beating their way to City Stars, to Talat Harb, to Agouza, the smiling swagger of loose limbed Cairenes swaying through the dust.

But he didn’t have time for metaphors, for adjectives vermilion; she was here. He could sense her in every speck of dust, even if she was only three parts per million, he could detect her in the air, on the pavements, in the dust thickened trees. They took on the appearance of a house plant that hasn’t been taken care of. Left in a corner, forgotten. No rain touches them, no cleaner dusts their waxy leaves. They lean over the roads in Zamalek, begging to be touched, begging to be shaken out of their torpor.

But he had no time for trees either. He hacked one last time into a tissue and got out of bed. He moved over to the bathroom and washed his hands. There was dust on the mirror and his face looked back through the haze. He looked older. Or younger. Or foreign. Happy. Sad. Tired. Excited. But he didn’t have time for making faces either.

Downstairs in the hotel he left the key with the manager and stepped into the evening. The dust rose to meet him carrying smells of gasoline, of searing meat, of crushed herbs, of sweat. He cleared his throat and set off towards her. He felt like a blood hound on the scent of a memory. He turned instinctively, feeling his way towards her. He could find her blind, he could stretch out his arms and his feet would carry him to her, borne like the dust on the loose wind of Cairo. Mohammad Mazhar, Mohammed al-Maraashly, Bahgat Ali: the names floated back from a year ago, binding memory to reality. The embassies and the days they walked these streets: there’s Iraq surrounded by tall palms, Myanmar isolated behind crumbling walls, Sweden with every brick in place like it was sent over flat-packed. As he walked, the Nile pleaded with him to drag his feet, but he bent his head and turned towards her scent.

Broken pavement, crushed Baraka bottle, branches with leaves resigning, dog shit smeared. The road passed below him, marking time, playing a show reel of human waste. The cafe was ahead. He could see its lights. He could remember its lights. His memory was racing to meet him. He was suspended in time and his memory was swelling every moment. Soon it would join his reality and he would be enveloped by the same words, the same touches, the same caresses that belonged a year ago.

The entrance swallowed him and the cafe was delivered to his senses. He must have looked lost because an immediate waiter bobbed into his vision, “Sir?” He looked down, his head beginning to throb and said automatically through mucus, “ayiz shay min fadhlak”. The man nodded curtly, “hagga tany?” What? He paused, then remembered his lines, “shay bas, binayanaya, shukran.” The man gestured to a chair nearby. He sat down heavily and became aware of the other patrons. Men. Mostly. Mostly smoking. Mostly staring at the new arrival. The tea arrived and he took it in his hands. Too soon. The glass burned, the skin of his palm shriveled in self-preservation.

She would come. He could feel her coming. Like he used to. He could feel her so strongly that he thought it idiotic that they were meeting in a cafe at 7, as if they needed to arrange a time and a place. He could have found her in a sandstorm. He started to relax and replaced his hands on the small glass cup. His hands, reluctant, grew bolder and soon sunk into its warmth. The glass was patterned in gold around the rim. Of course it wasn’t real gold, probably just an alloy. He turned his gaze on the cafe. Its high ceilings and carved decoration spoke of an elegance that it barely tried to maintain. Dust lay everywhere human hands did not care to reach. But the bar was clean enough and there was a man polishing a window. He had seen him doing that earlier in the day. Was it the same window? Was the man a memory? Was there a persistent stain, refusing to be polished, refusing to be scrubbed out of existence?

She would come. She was here. He took a first sip of the tea and the warm liquid left a breath of mint before sliding down his sore throat. He could feel, now, a warmth in his stomach. The tea had settled and was making itself at home. It was a shame, he thought, that in a short time the tea would cool and digest and he would be left with nothing but an urgent need to relieve himself. A short moment of warmth followed by a repulsion. He looked at the tea in disgust. He was just looking at his future. He was inevitably on the way to pissing out the contents of that glass, gold rimmed cup. In fact, looking at it closely, it was already a sepia yellow colour. It wouldn’t even look any different coming out as it did going in. Maybe his piss would even taste of mint. Why should he piss? Why couldn’t he enjoy his memories of mint tea without the hassle of pissing? After all, this particular cup of tea would add nothing to his memory. He could already classify, identify the taste and feeling of mint tea, the warmth, the slight clean taste, the roughness of the scorched tongue – so why should he bother with the drinking and the pissing? He knew he would though, eventually. Just like he knew she was going to come, eventually. And what else could he do whilst he waited? So he lifted the glass and put his lips to the gold rim and tilted his head back a little.

The liquid, predictably, slid over his lower lip and over his tongue, which he lifted so that the mint flavour slipped down onto his lower palate before gently swallowing through his thick throat. Thereafter the sensation was of warmth. He tried to follow the warmth down to his stomach but was disappointed to notice that only the first sip can be traced that far. Subsequent sips seem to get stuck somewhere higher up. He almost felt full. He should stop focusing on the tea. It was just tea. Just something to do while he waited. Time didn’t seem to be passing. The same cars droned past outside, the same combination of lights and horns, shouts and breaking screeches. The waiter in the cafe made the same movements, back and forth, sheesha, tofaah, shay, ahwa, sukkar. The patrons made the same gestures to one another and the speech was indecipherable. They seemed to be talking about the football. Or the weather. Or memories. Or the dust. One is pointing. One raises his glass. One pulls on a sheesha pipe. One just sits, still. An old man is sitting near a large plate mirror, staring. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t seem to be moving at all. Time didn’t smee toby moo thing at all. Team dad int smeethabee moofin atorl. Moofin atorl. Orl.

He jerked up with a start. What had happened? The waiter looked over at him sharply, but continued his movements. He was choreographed and couldn’t miss a step. She was coming, wasn’t she? He could feel her coming, just like he used to. He could. The smoke in the cafe mingled with the dust, filling his lungs with a weight. That must have been what made him drift off. It had got so smoky that he wasn’t even sure if he could still see the old man across the room. He could see the mirror, or thought he could, it was hard to tell what was reflected and what was real. He could feel time receding now, the moment was reeling away from him. His memory was clouded in a haze of smoke and dust, he wasn’t sure anymore about anything. Was she coming? Was she still? He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate, but behind his eyes his memory was out of control, it was lurching about, making him feel nauseous. It wasn’t that he was forgetting, it was that the time was gone: an impenetrable haze of dust had settled between him and his past. She wasn’t coming. It was a time of dust. It was a time of decay.

How to enjoy waking up at dawn

After waking up at the Krakadorn every day for forty days, I’ve become something of an expert in how to enjoy waking up that early.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. Get a good alarm clock.
  2. Get excited about the novelty of getting up so early. It’s so ridiculous that it’s funny – now jump out of that bed!
  3. Imagine you are going somewhere really cool and exciting.
  4. Go somewhere really cool and exciting (use your imagination).
  5. Stare at the Sun, wonder at the natural miracle of dawn. It does this every day, while you are normally snoring your head off. Be happy about how lucky you are to be watching this event.
  6. Take pictures, have fun! Use your creativity to get inside the morning.
  7. Find something / someone to laugh at (not hard – there are plenty of commuters).
  8. Look closely at the world as it is waking up. These are things you don’t see normally. The frost still on the ground, rubbish bags ripped open by rats overnight, the morning call of the birds, the soft hum of the milkman’s float. Appreciate.
  9. Return home and reward yourself with a breakfast fit for a King / Queen. Make it a real feast of tasty goodness, none of this muesli rubbish. Cook something you love – why does breakfast have to be boring? Fry up some sausages, eggs, tomatoes, make pancakes or an omelette. Use your imagination.
  10. Forget the hasty shower – have a real long hot bath. Yeah!
  11. Then look at the clock and see it’s only half eight.

That is how you learn to love the dawn.

Outside Mornington Crescent Tube Station

Right now outside Mornington Crescent tube station in London (at 1825 on Thursday) a man in a green, black and pale blue striped jumper, peaked cap and khaki trousers talks on his mobile telephone, one hand in his pocket, he just strides up and down the street.

In the background some scaffolding has been erected against Greater London house and there is graffiti against the slate grey hoarding. The trees stand and at their foot are eight mopeds and an assortment of parked cars. The traffic on the main road is busy.

The man is wearing earphones around his neck and a bag slung over his shoulder

“This area is covered by CCTV.” A yellow sign with a stark black image of a camera in 2D above the lettering. A discarded television lies beneath this sign

Two cyclists drift across the main road casually, with no regard for the traffic. Three black youths, one riding standing up, tall on the back wheel with his hands on the shoulders of the guy pedalling. They are not wearing helmets.

The scaffolding is by a company called Beacon. There is red and white tape around some of the poles. The building rises to six stories high. The trees are patterned like camouflage, mottled lichen greys, ash whites, greens, browns. The leaves are dark green, light green, leaves cut out from a pattern using those scissors that automatically cut serrated edges.

Russell Square

The warmth of the sun and the idle chatter of Spanish transports me, a dog sniffing the ground and people walking, talking, sitting, relaxing, soaking up the sun. Mothers with young children – one fallen flat on her face – the dangers of her scooter are obvious. The fountain blows foaming water. She’s back on the scooter, the Spanish turns faultlessly to English as a friend approaches. Round and round the fountain goes the little girl on the scooter. Another girl joins her, observes the water’s edge, doing nothing but enjoying the movement of the scooter. She pushes, pushes, pushes and then lets it roll – oop – one foot in the water. She goes and parks up next to mother.

A man in a scarf, thick black coat, heeled leather shoes and a black hat walks swiftly by – a swarthy look contrasting to the pink and fuchsia of the little girl.

Opposite, two police officers talk to a man, standing, pointing. Another man sits and the dog plays around them. They are taking details. The man sits and I can see that he is aged, with a flat cap and white beard. The mother bends to take a photo of the child and the dog interrupts, sniffing at whatever that is. He leaves to take a piss. The man talking to the police I can see is holding a can of beer – seems a little early to be enjoying that. Perhaps they are homeless. The mothers are beautiful, well made up and sporting sunglasses and accoutrements of fashion. You can tell the people who were dressed by seven a.m. – they have coats folded over their arms, not expecting the heat of this sun, which has been hidden by the cold winds blowing through town.

The gardener talks to the old woman during a break- he is a Rastafarian – gumboots, green combats, black t-shirt and black hat holding his hair in. He seems to be an engaging man and I’ve frequently seen him in the parks around here. He does a good job and I like to think of him, living with the land, even in the city. His beard and face bear the marks of a life lived. His priorities are obvious: the land comes first. The city would be nothing without the green of the earth and spring. What would the office workers do without the thought of a stroll through the park en-route, or the lunch hour spent lying flat out on the warmed grass? He has a couple of jumpers and a rainbow scarf of some description – a piece of fabric he always wears.

A group of three men sitting on a bench split up to take their leave – the third stands slowly – they are all old, but he is older and moves even more slowly in the same direction, his blue coat having a waterproof complexion.

The Spaniards say goodbye – I say goodbye quietly. Everyone is very casual around here, the circular shape of the centre of the park provides a natural cat walk for the passing people, in a good mood on account of the sun and vaguely smiling because they know they are on show, the runners even more so – not running around the park but bisecting it – cutting a diameter through it.

The Rasta laughs loudly and the old woman’s body shakes quietly. They are talking earnestly and happily. The child wants to play in the water and the fountain doubles in size. The girl lets out a controlled squeel of excitement. The wind catches the water and blows it softly over them, air-conditioning two blonde girls, daughters of two black-haired beauties.

A man walks through the park, head bent low, suit grey and open but head and shoulders still tucked over himself, still in winter stance, a typical Englishman, broken by the weather. The weather which governs our constitution coats, which breaks our necks and our spirit. Heavy clothes which can only weigh us down, lead coats that take us to the bottom of the ocean of drizzle.

The Rasta has gone, the old woman too. The dog plays on the bench between the two old men, the police are gone, the old men stand and drift away, stopping to talk to a woman on a wheelchair motorised, the dog yelps excitedly and jumps up at his master. A woman is making the rounds with a microphone asking questions, getting vox pop (which I suppose is Latin – vox populi – voice of the people). She has red hair.
“If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?” She’s from SOAS radio. She almost vanishes in the sunlight. The girl next to me answers, “Romania, because that’s my home.” I answer, “Vietnam, because my friend’s there.” I don’t tell her that I study at SOAS too.

The man in the grey suit walks back again, the same step, the same stride and the tie flowing over his shoulder. The Romanian’s perfume fills my nostrils. The raven haired mother’s husband arrives – he looks Mediterranean and plays with the girl, lifting her and attacking her with his teeth, burying his face in her side.

An old man, grizzled beard, wearing a woolly grey-blue hat with Tottenham written on the side comes to empty the bins. He is wearing a fluorescent jacket, a marker of his officialdom. The fountain falls to an ambient trickle of water, just a small puff of water surrounded by two rings of six acolytes – twelve, like the apostles. A man comes to the centre of the circle, mutters something and then sprints off in the direction of the tube. The girl splashes in the water, the sunlight sparkling off the surface of the concrete. They are in silhouette and the flakes of sunlight, starlight, jump up and she tries to go deeper, but is drawn back – where did the scooter girl go?

An old man in a wheelchair, thoroughly wrapped up, takes the air, pushed along by his aide. His aide, wearing a mischievous grin, pushes him towards the water, but swerves away at the last. The old man leans up and mutters something to him from inside the folds of his scarf and hat and coat and blanket. The aide beams on.

I could stay here all day, but the family have left in unison and the pigeons go back to their paddling. The Romanian reads, the tourists struggle with a map, the bin-man finds more litter. Two more tourists enter the scene, a man on the phone enters the circle, stands and leaves the way he came. A woman with a puffa jacket and a shoulder-swinging stride goes from left to right and the whole world is a stage, everyone is performing, even the old man, eyes closed, hands folded in his lap, his stick between his legs, relaxed, facing the sun, whispering, “Take me away, take me away.”