I was standing on the edge of a crowd of thousands. The wounded were being tended to in a field hospital, across the street from the hard core who were sleeping—or had been sleeping—inside the door-frame of a building for who knows how long. I could see large banners scrawled with foreign scribbles. I tried to not look too out of place but I failed, miserably this time, which was surprising since it was the first time I had been outed since I had gotten to the city. It was clear that this was Tahrir Square in the midst of some sort of revolution, whatever such romantic notions may mean.
“Want to see some stuff?” He asked me.
I didn’t really want to. I had approached the square from behind the main buildings, in a bid to be inconspicuous. I had seen the Egyptian Museum, and I had gotten my Al Ahly shirt successfully. But this was pure chaos. I needed a friend, no matter who it was. I consented, with conditions.
“Like . . . ?” I asked, letting my simple question hang in the air like the cigarette smoke that swirled around a few of the protesting groups.
“The wounded? Those hurt? My brother died here—shot by a sniper in the revolution. Look—here he is,” he said, pulling a picture out of his wallet. I didn’t understand it. It was a glossy picture of a man, red letters in Arabic. Nothing else that a laymen could understand. Other than, of course, the fact that people in Tahrir Square are looking to sell a story to any western-looking person they saw. To them, a Western face meant a way to sell a story—their side of the multi-faceted battle raging for Egypt’s soul. I didn’t believe him.
“I’m not here for the news—I’d rather just smoke a hookah. Know any good places?” I asked, honestly. I wasn’t in Cairo to become embroiled in the politics. I was there for the pyramids, the feel of the off-season.
“Sure, lets go.” He said simply. I stupidly followed him as he walked in and out of cafes. This one has too many old men. This one has no seats. This one doesn’t have any either, lets cross the street. I followed him, less intent on the hookah at this point than to see where this guy’s idea of who I was would take us. He wanted to be comfortable. We crossed by the make shift field hospital. Bloody rags and people who might not wake up.
“What role did the ultras have in all of . . . all of this?” I asked as I followed him through the crowds, referring to the fans of Cairo’s main soccer team, Al Ahly, who were played a big part in the revolution. He didn’t have a good answer for me, and I forgave him. Perhaps his answers had been scripted in his own mind.
“Here, sit down—I’ll grab a seat,” he said, seating me by the door of a packed café a few blocks from the chaotic square. I sat and looked dumbly at the thronged café. He said something in Arabic to the proprietor who, as seems to be the case in Egypt, was dressed like a customer. The apple hookah came before he could grab a seat. I gladly took some hits, letting the smoke batter my lungs before sending it out into the Cairene air. It was bliss, or as close to bliss as a Westerner can get in Cairo. I watched the smoke fall into nothing.
“Mind if I smoke a cigarette?” he said as he pulled up his chair. I motioned for him to “go for it”. He lit up.
“These are so expensive here . . .” he muttered. Then he got into his script. “Where are you from?”
“Turkey,” I said, as sure as I could.
“Turkey . . . I had a girlfriend from there. Marmaris . . . You know, I wish Egypt could be like Turkey. None of . . . this. Democracy and Islam. Together.”
I looked at him. I knew Turkey. It wasn’t easy. But maybe it was easier than Cairo.
He didn’t need my words, ineffectual as they were.
“Look—I pray on Fridays. But then, I like to have a beer. I like that. They want to take that away, all of them”. They were the bearded ones in the square, the ones my driver to the pyramids had cursed. “Bad People,” he had called them spitting the words out.
“Look at these girls, their heads uncovered. This will all go away,” he warned me, as part of what I assumed to be part of his prescribed speech. I looked around. There were uncovered girls. He knew that I knew.
“Look at her. She wants to fuck you.” He said, regarding a western looking Egyptian girl sitting near us.
“Yeah?” I laughed out the words along with the smoke.
“Yeah. She knows you’re western. Money. And you wont try to own her. Most of the people here are journalists.” I doubted it, but I played along. He wanted me to feel comfortable, and changed the subject accordingly. The hookah was comforting enough. I wasn’t a journalist looking for my sexual fill. But it would have been nice. I glanced at the girl. She definitely did have nice eyes. Dark like Swiss chocolate. Dark like Nubia.
“She has a boyfriend.” I said. I said it to see what he would say.
“No. He’s a friend.”
“Yes. I can tell by the way she’s talking to him.” They were staring into a video camera together. The sites and sounds of the fighting that took place before I had gotten there. They looked like friends, but I let it go. He droned on about his past, trying to sound credible. Studied in Holland. I guessed it meant “I have money, trust me.” I dodged political questions, or anything that might make it seem like I was fishing for a story I’d write two hours later in a cramped, lonely, strange hotel room. My evasiveness made him know he was down. But not out. No one is ever out in Cairo. The people had become operators since the revolution. Or maybe before hand—hadn’t Mubarak played with America’s fear of Islamic terrorism to mass a hefty personal fortune out of aid money?
“How long did you say it was since you got here?”
“The night before last?” I ventured, trying to be vague.
“So . . . “ He said it as if he was counting in his head. “Less than forty-eight hours ago, right?”
“I guess.” I shrugged, taking another pull on the hookah.
“Do you have your passport?”
It was a dumb question. A foreigner in a foreign land, without a passport? It would be like a dog without a flea collar. I couldn’t lie. The jig was up. I cursed myself in my mind. He could tell and I didn’t even need to answer. No, no one was ever “out” in Cairo.
“Could you get me some cigarettes at duty free?” A simple question.
“I mean . . .” He cut me off as I trailed off.
“You can get them once at the airport, and once again within 48 hours of arrival,” he explained calmly.
I had no choice but to consent. It didn’t matter, in the long run. I’ve been helped by random people in random countries to find soccer shirts. Some might say I’ve led a life relying on stranger’s help in stranger countries. So he would get a couple cartons of American Spirits. It’s all good. He gave me the 200 Egyptian pounds, two crisp notes. He was a self-professed operator. He took the smokes off a white shelf in a well-lit government shop. It felt like a hospital. Some Arabic got written in my passport, I can’t say I wasn’t scared. He might have been an instigator in the protests that the government was after. He might have been a petty tout looking to exploit unwitting tourists. But I needed to do it. Traveler’s karma, if you will.
Walking outside, he with his cigarettes and me with a dark uneasy feeling in my stomach, I made it a point to part at the first intersection.
“I’m meeting a German girl and her friend tomorrow night at a belly-dancing show. You should come. It will make it easier for me to fuck her if you can take care of her friend,” he said off hand. An operator indeed.
I didn’t go. Instead of feeling up a young German in a strange city far, far, away from home, the next night I found myself running from tear gas and dodging men wielding wooden sticks in the tumult of yet another one of the spontaneous street protests that defined a Cairo in transition. But I did have a fresh white Adidas Zamalek shirt. And I also had the knowledge that, as a traveler, people will want something from you, even if you think you have nothing left to give. You always have something, and that is completely fair. You may only be able to give words, a perspective, a pair of ears, or—even—cigarettes. But it is certainly something.