Tentative

Other people’s words about … railway stations

The ideal place for coffee is part of a railway station. I have always felt this. There’s something about the stillness amid the bustle, something about standing and stopping as a great crowd flows around you. One of my best railway coffee stops was Ramses Station in Cairo on an undergrad trip twenty years ago: citizens of the world drinking beakers of sweet black tea and eating brittle, quietly disappointing cakes on their way to places I would never visit myself, a sun-stained ruffle of Baedeker pages to everything I saw and touched and smelled.

From ‘The Unmapped Mind
by Christian Donlan

Picture a young couple arriving in Cairo, not by train as Christian Donlan describes it in the passage above, but by bus, having met and travelled together from Jerusalem. Now picture the young woman, a few weeks later, leaving Cairo again, this time by train, this time, like Donlan, from Ramses Station.

It is 1993. The young man is American. He has been studying at the American University in Cairo, learning Arabic. The young woman is Australian. The two are very much in love, though newly, tentatively, messily. After a few weeks of living together in Cairo, he has told her that her English-speaking, Western ways are distracting him from immersing himself in the Egyptian world — its language, its people, its life — in the way he’d planned to before they met.

And so she has agreed to leave.

The day he takes her to Ramses Station, she doesn’t see anyone drinking coffee the way Donlan describes it. She sees only a grimy railway platform swirling with people. It’s grimy and swirling with people in the same way that all of Cairo is grimy and swirling with people. She’s decided to catch the train to Luxor, to Aswan, to take a felucca down the Nile — to do all the things that tourists do when they are in Egypt, though she prides herself on not being a tourist and has till now studiously avoided doing those things.

They stand on the platform and hold each other, and because they are young and tentative and newly, messily in love, they find it hard to let go of each other.

I don’t want you to leave, he whispers.

You’ll hate me if I stay, she answers.

Both of these things are true.

And so she says good bye and shoulders her backpack. The last thing she will remember of him before the train departs is the way he turns, finally, to walk out of the station, calling out his farewell over his shoulder to her in Arabic.

In Arabic. Yes. She takes this as a reminder of the resentment he has felt towards her. That resentment sparks just enough anger in her to make her climb up onto the train without looking back.

Three weeks later, she will arrive back in Ramses Station, in a train from Upper Egypt. She will get out of the train and walk through the station and make her way along the crowded, grimy streets back to the apartment where he is living, where they lived together before she left. He won’t be expecting her — or not exactly, not that day. There are no mobile phones in 1993, and there is no landline in the apartment. She has tried to call him several times from various pay phones in the rickety, dusty streets of Aswan but they have spoken only once.

Come back, he said over the phone, his voice raw and husky from sleepless nights and cheap cigarettes. I miss you. I can’t live without you. Please come back.

And so she has come back.

Cairo, 1993

You know, perhaps, from previous posts that I travelled far and wide in my early twenties, and that some of that travel was certainly by train. You know, perhaps, that I lived in Cairo for a short period in my early twenties. So maybe the story above is mine, or maybe it’s a composite of stories I heard or witnessed along the way during my travels, or maybe I made it up.

All of these things may be true.

Here is a fact about Ramses Station, though — or rather, a fact about any railway station. They are full of stories — arrivals, departures; journeys to, journeys from. Because of this, railway stations are full of all the emotions that such things entail: joy, sorrow, confusion, hope, longing; they are full of emotions that are new and tentative and messy, that are tinged with love.

And, if for no other reason than that, the railway stations you’ve arrived at, the railway stations you’ve departed from, are worth remembering, long afterwards. Long after you know you’ll never come back.

Another world

Other people’s words about … Cairo

Sunlight was streaming through the shutters. I peered down into the street where a cat was sunbathing on a parked car. Friday morning was always the most peaceful time of the week in Istanbul Street. The doorman’s wife sat on the kerb watching her ragged child play in the clouds of pollen and dust. [My weekend away from Cairo] seemed a world away, a movie I watched last year. Cairo is so encompassing that when you are there all other realities seem to fade away. I thought of Hatton Garden and it seemed surreal that at that very moment crowds of London commuters were heading to work in the rain. It felt impossible that the two places could exist at the same time.

From ‘Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City
by Hugh Miles

Many years ago, in another life, I spent about six months living in Cairo. I had happened there by chance, at the suggestion of my boyfriend at the time, who spoke a smattering of Arabic. We lived in the centre of the city, away from the ex-pat community, in a dusty fourth-floor apartment with faded red velvet sofas that gave off great puffs of dust whenever one of us sat down on them. At night, when we switched on the lights in the darkened bedroom, there was the sound of a thousand cockroaches scuttling out of view. The view from the rickety balcony was of life on the street below: the storekeeper of the small general store where we bought bottled water, washing down his front doorstep with water and a broom; the ta’ameya man at his food stand, stirring his big metal spoon through a great dented tin bowl of smoking hot oil.

I left Cairo as I came to it — by chance, at someone else’s bidding. I knew even then that I would never go back. For those few months in Cairo, I had not lived as a tourist, as most Westerner visitors do. Not exactly. Not quite. Cairo was in me, and on me, in a very physical, a very literal, sense: its grime lay in thick strips of black beneath my fingernails; its dust coated my skin. The city had, for those few months, as Hugh Miles so succinctly puts it, encompassed me.

And so I left, and I did not go back.

I found some old photos from that time recently, ones I took with an old camera, in those pre-digital years. I don’t have a scanner and so in order to reproduce them here, I actually used my camera to rephotograph those photographs. This accounts for their odd, slightly removed, unreal aspect — for, as well as Cairo in these pictures, you can see the glare from my window right here in Australia, the bend in the photographic paper.

I was going to apologise for this, originally. And then it occurred to me that in fact, this aspect of distance and remove is exactly right. In this context, it is right.

And so, no apologies today — just a glimpse into another world, a very long way away from here and from now.