I understood by the noise of the plane engines that we were about to descend. I took a look at my watch, yes…. we were about to land in Cairo. We were still up high but I could already see Giza plateau with the great pyramid overlooking a vast stretch of houses to the West.
Wife…! Wake up we are about to land in 20 minutes.
“It is the first time I could sleep on the plane and I liked that. We only have hand luggage, so if we are lucky we can quickly fill out entry visa forms”.
Unfortunately at the exit there were so many people we looked around and patiently waited in line.
I felt like a fish out of water surrounded by people with different styles of turbans with long airy and comfortable-looking garments.
The man who was standing in front of me nonchalantly lit up a cigarette and began to smoke. It looked so odd, so speaking in English I asked him if smoking was allowed and he nodded as if it was obvious.
You cannot imagine how thrilled I was to lit up a cigarette despite what prohibitionists say! I was doing the check out and I was smoking, how nice! A tiny satisfaction which makes you understand how strong the appeal of the forbidden is.
Outside the airport there was the usual chaos of cars and taxis, we joined a group of four people in a van going to the town centre. High quality government buildings were predominantly present along the large road connecting the airport and the city centre. As we got closer to the centre the traffic became increasingly chaotic, I saw a lot of Fiat 1100 cars
produced many years ago. The air was almost hard to breathe.
At last we arrived at the hotel, two attendants promptly took our backpack, despite the traffic noise. We could distinctly hear the Muezzin’s voice calling to prayers from a nearby Mosque.
“Listen dear, our friends are coming from Milan and they’ll be here late, I would like to unpack and go out for a walk to the Kasbah”.
I fully agree, also because I would like to buy an Egyptian dress to feel more comfortable, you should also buy a blouse with long sleeves, I don’t know if you noticed you are the only one with a T-shirt.
Following directions they gave us at the hotel, we began walking towards the Kasbah. The road was crowded and we could hardly walk. A boy stopped us speaking Italian, it must stick out a mile that we are Italian.
He suggested a lots of things to do and he even offered to take us to the Kasbah to have a look and buy an Egyptian dress. We walked down the narrow lanes crammed with odds and ends, and while we were passing by the smiley shop owners gaze upon us, offering their goods.
It was getting dark and we began to worry, we kept walking for fifteen minutes but we had no clue of where we were going so I asked the boy to go back. He replied that we were almost there we did not have to worry and, on the other hand we did not have any other option. We realised we could disappear without a trace. I bought an original Egyptian dress, I began to haggle over the price, but I took a look at my wife and paid on the spot, we both realised in a flash that we had to leave that place as soon as possible and get back to the main road leading to the hotel.
In the morning we met our travel mates. We hugged and kissed Luisa, an old friend, married to a colleague of mine, who is not among us anymore, he was like a brother to me and I shared with him my aviation experience.
The lawyer, who was with his brother and his sister in-law, was the journey planner and master mind of the whole group. He had the “lost explorer’s look” and he was absent-minded and unable to assess any risk, being only interested in the local customs.
He felt like an Egyptian, and I imagined him with a kaftans and a turban on his head or with an African helmet and with a camouflage suit, and instead he looked as if he just got out of the office: light chequered shirt, cream trousers, elegant shoes and we were about to venture in the desert!
As usual appearances are deceptive, in fact the van arrived at the hotel on time, we loaded our luggage and headed for Farafra oasis, the first leg of our journey.
We left the outskirts of Cairo, suddenly there were no houses around, only a long line, which was stretching to the horizon, was irregularly flanked by a railroad, but there was no train running on it.
We decided to collect some money to make a common fund and appoint the lawyer as official cashier and paymaster.
After about one and a half hour’s driving we spotted a blue building on the right hand side on the road. The driver slowed down and told us we could stop, it was the only gas station, but with no gas pumps.
We went in, hoping to find a coffee machine, but the only pleasant thing was the cool temperature. On a masonry counter there were dented aluminium containers, and a row of glasses which had not seen Pril lemon spark for ages. Various hookah were placed near the table
"Guys come on ... you looked a bit puzzled. What did you expect…a restaurant? It’s time we got some antibodies, I’ll have some tea and then I’ll smoke”.
The lawyer was so glad about that situation, and he felt so comfortable as if he know the place. We had some tea and then the owner slowly prepared hookah. We started smoking with a smile.
It is completely different from smoking a cigarette, tobacco is flavoured and it gives you a cool feeling. Unfortunately inveterate smokers like myself do not realise that the main damage caused by cigarettes (apart from nicotine and tar) is high temperature reached by smoke.
Hookah is a clever invention because it is not pocket size, like a packet of cigarettes and when you smoke that ‘tool’ in public you feel so important, as Decrescenzo would say ‘you strike a pose’. In fact I sat down and looked at the ladies in front of me thinking: ladies take a look at a real man smoking, keep your voice down or you’ll have to deal with me.
The first impact with the desert is disarming: a vast expanse of dunes interspersed with rocks. Simplification is complete, the sand and the blue sky are the only two dominating elements, absolute silence allows you to hear the noise of your body.
I gazed upon the dunes, one after the other until they disappeared on the horizon and I had a perception of infinity, which conveyed both fear and awe. My mind travelled at the speed of light, up to the top limit, then inexplicably was reflected back, invading the body, imposing me to look inside myself into the darkest and brightest corners of my soul and I felt tiny, naked and wobbly, but at the centre of the universe.
While I was meditating on this, I went behind a dune and I heard my wife calling me to carry on with the journey, just like a Muezzin.
All you see when you reach an oasis is some bushes and palm trees, whilst houses and huts are camouflaged with the desert, we could only spot the hotel where we were staying. It was very simple but pristine with nice bedrooms and a wide courtyard where a small pool of sulphurous water at a temperature of 60° C was present.
In the hotel room I put my Egyptian dress on and looking at myself in the mirror I realised that I was not so bad. My face features are a mixed of Western, Indian and Arab. As I left the room, a boy smiled at me and asked: “Egyptian?” With a touch of coquetry I replied yes… and I entered the banquet hall with the gait of a young Lawrence d 'Arabia, while my amused travel mates were watching me
In the morning we met the guide with his assistant. We had two big jeep cars equipped with racks accurately loaded with rugs, wood and everything we needed to survive for two days and two nights in the desert. Amin was a slim, middle aged man with a white and grey chequered head scarf which plastically covered his neck slipping on the right shoulder. He had well-trimmed moustaches and a look on his face that showed his pride of being a Muslim. At the same time he was tolerant and respectful towards foreigners who look like fish out of water there, with different customs and culture. We visited two tombstones which are supposed to be the most ancient ones in Egypt and then we made for the desert.
We drove through the black desert – which is composed of black gravel - for about 30 km, then suddenly our guide left the road and a little later we found ourselves on a vast plateau stretch, as flattened and levelled as a football pitch.
We were driving at a great speed and I was surprised that the sandy ground was so compact as to barely leave trails, soon cancelled by the wind.
Ten minutes later, carrying on at high speed, we slalomed among sand dunes. Our guides knew the area very well, they managed to identify where the sandy ground turned hard and compact, following certain paths which appeared totally irrational to us.
We could move as we pleased and that gave me a feeling of freedom. There were no streets or traffic lights to pay attention to, so there was nothing certain or sure and, in fact, we had a puncture.
Amin – a bit annoyed – started to repair the tyre, together with his assistant. He advised us not to go far and always keep an eye on the cars, because it is very easy to get lost in the desert. Two months before, one of his colleagues had lost a Japanese tourist who wandered one week in the desert. Luckily they found him, he was exhausted and in shock, while he attempted to eat the desert sand.
We took pictures and at last we had a taste of the real desert. We looked around at 360° and we could only see sand, the blue sky, everything was clean and despite the scorching sun you did not sweat, because there was very low humidity, it was very unusual for me as I leave in the Pontine marsh. Later that afternoon we got to the place where we spent the night. Amin parked the cars as to form an L shape and fixed two poles at 1 metre from them. Then he arranged two thick coloured blankets on the poles, while my friends scattered around – you can imagine why – and ten minutes later they returned lighter and gathered around a big sand dune, rolling on the sand just like a bunch of kids. I stayed with Amin, as I was the eldest of the group he always talked to me, we were on the same wavelength and he gladly accepted my help to arrange the camp.
The shelter for the night was ready, in a corner there were two blankets to protect from the wind, rugs on the ground and a gas cooker for our dinner. We gladly sat down to smoke a cigarette and eventually Amin took a rug and said to me “I am going to pray my God…. Come along!”
Actually I would not know how to do it. I am afraid I cannot do it properly I do not know your prayers…your gestures .
“Don’t you worry, you pray your God and I pray mine”.
I also grabbed a rug and we walked towards East, the Sun was behind us, we were heading towards the silence. The farther we got from the cars the more serious Amin’s look became, there was a solemn atmosphere, I felt like Frederick II and he looked like
Malik al-Kamil, there was no cathedral or a mosque ahead of us, there was only the desert, but I had the feeling I was in a holy place.
We got on our knees together, I was staring at the horizon, while Amin was repetitively bending forward, almost touching the rug as if he was browsing a book.
It was a feeling of wellbeing and peace. I realised I could have projected the pictures in my mind and actually see them on the sand dunes
We were praying together, I prayed an indefinite and yet-to-discover God, whilst Amin seemed to have very clear ideas.
I was in tuned with him and I wondered if Amin is Muslim, I am also Muslim, but unfortunately there are cardinals and mullah between us and God.
The sun set and after dinner we arranged our sleeping bags for the night, the wind started blowing and only a few minutes later it turned into a wind storm. Visibility was reduced to two metres, sand flew everywhere, through the nose, ears and eyes.
We zipped up the sleeping bags trying to sleep, but despite Amin’s reassuring words I was rather worried. There are moments in which negative thoughts conjure up in your mind, because you are in an unknown and unpredictable environment.
I could not sleep and tried to distract myself thinking on what we could do the following day.
Fortunately the wind calmed down and then dropped after a couple of hours. My friends were asleep and I was wide awake, probably because of the adrenaline I had in those two hours. I lit up a cigarette and, wrapped up in a blanket, I made for the dune in front of us. I was sitting on the sand and after watching the starry night I spotted the Ursa minor and at the end of the dipper handle I spotted the North Star! I wish it was so simple for our mind to find a point of reference, the right track!
Imagination, dreams and thoughts do not have boundaries and restraints, except the ones we set. They flow at 360° and we are often lazy or afraid so we delegate a few people to indicate the right way.
As in a flock of sheep we just follow our daily routine and we do not realise that a small group of men i.e. cardinals, mullah, rabbis, sorcerers, politicians manage to rule the world, placing people against one another in the name of improbable Gods who tend to look like Mars, Apollo, Volcano, whilst Athena is light years away.
I was perfectly fine with Amin, our problem was not oil or his three wives, poverty or wealth, cultures or different customs. Our problem are religions and their rules which are supposed to be divine and they are necessarily and inexorably irreconcilable. How can it be possible that in a millennium starting from the Crusades up to the twin towers attack we have been slaughtering one another in the name of Christ and Mahomet?
For a few powerful people both politician or clergymen alike, is just a matter of power but the majority of human beings it is a dramatically real, almost a life-and-death conflict.
The issue lies in the dual meaning of terms to believe or to have faith. To believe is rational and to have faith is irrational.
Personally I would delete the word faith from dictionaries as it does not make sense and it is a deceiving version of the term to believe, and it is demonstrated by the fact that in the name of faith the worst crimes were and will be committed. Faith is irrational and it is often an encouraged and authorised form of insanity. It is functional to all dictators, prevaricators and Pied Piper of Hamelin kind of people. The people who have faith cannot be held responsible for any actions or even crimes committed and they are promised a reward in this life or in a life after death.
I have the feeling or perhaps I hope that the future Church will only be a universal one. It will be necessarily be One in the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist rites and procedures developed through the years to express the same thing: our gratefulness to God who can only be One.
Go-betweens will gradually disappear, their bureaucracies and “share rules” will be made by ordinary people.
To this respect we have a lot to learn from the Muslims. They already have their natural mosques: the desert temple, a street corner, a corner in their house and the time of prayers is scheduled by the sun. In towns the only unpleasant thing are loudspeakers used by irritant and obsessive muezzins to remind everybody that a Mullah is there to watch and judge if you are a good Muslim.
Over an hour passed, it got really cold and the desert was my friend again. The thought that two great men of the past Frederick II and Al-Malik Al-Kamil had such a fruitful meeting, gave me hope and pleased me.
At last I slipped into my sleeping bag and fell fast asleep.