It's 1.20pm at Heathrow Terminal 4 and the scene at the departure gates is tense. Those of us flying British Airways to Egypt have heard that traces of polonium-210, the radioactive poison that did for Alexander Litvinenko, were found on BA planes. We're even reminded of it shopping in Boots ("You don't want to get the runs, do you? Get some of that polonium, sorry Imodium Extra...").
Others fret about the wisdom of flying into a Muslim country whose ancient university is the centre of global Islamic studies. Inexperienced travellers are hazy about what you're allowed to take as hand luggage these days. Since September 11, most flyers have the sense not to carry knives, scissors, razors and tweezers with them; we've all seen the comical glass boxes at airports where confiscated sharp objects are displayed.
Nowadays, the sight that greets you is more homely: it's a table at the passport-checking gate positively groaning under the weight of bottles - umpteen Volvics and Evians, bottles of Coke and Fanta, Froot Shoots, juices, smoothies. Cans of shaving foam, also deemed a security threat, look forlornly out of place among their more refreshing co-confiscatees. I even spotted a two-litre bottle of Lambrini, sadly abandoned by the quartet of zany madcap ladies who, anticipating an in-flight party, brought it with them all the way from Essex. The whole thing resembles not so much an amnesty handing-in of dangerous substances as the tombola stall at a daffodil fair in Gloucestershire.
It's hard to disagree that security should be tight when you read the "Travel Advice" kindly supplied by the Foreign Office. Not since I opened Cormac Mc-Carthy's The Road have I been so profoundly depressed by words on a page. "There is a high threat from terrorism in Egypt," it starts cheerfully. "Attacks can be indiscriminate and against civilian targets, including places frequented by foreigners... Three separate bomb attacks... two suicide bombs... explosions in the Sinai peninsula..." Relentlessly it goes on: "Avoid political gatherings... a small risk from unexploded mines... armed pirates in the Red Sea... avian flu, seven human fatalities..."
When you arrive and take your first paranoid steps in this howling super-metropolis of 18 million people, you realise that the biggest threat to human life in Cairo isn't the bomb, knife, pirate or bird flu; it's the drivers. I've never seen anything like it. Along the endless dual-carriageway ring road, built to take two lanes of cars safely in each direction, five cars doing 90kph jostle each other to get ahead, honking, scratching paintwork and mostly ignoring the jaywalkers who wander between the hurtling vehicles, often carrying babies in their arms, as though in some drugged casbah dreamworld.
The second craziest thing I saw in the city was a traffic policeman trying, in the absence of traffic lights, to persuade five lines of cars to stop driving past, or around, or indeed over him; it was like a farmer trying to stop 200 escaping piglets.
The most crazy thing, however, was my taxi-driver Ibrahim. Huge, sweaty, chain-smoking, he seemed to regard every car on the road as an enemy to be trounced. Like many taxi guys, he'd pimped his ride and, as he drove (and honked and cursed), pink and blue and yellow lights played around the dashboard while a bad-taste halo flashed on and off over my head.
"You laaahk music?" he grated. Mmm, lovely, I said, I cannot get enough of indigenous culture... The speaker behind me crackled into life. A shockingly glum lament waily-wooed at terrible volume all over the car. Ibrahim lit another cigarette. "Thees mah favvoreet," he said, and began to sing along with tearful expressivity. As he zoomed through a red light, his singing became louder - then he reached under the dash and, to my frank alarm, pulled out a microphone of the karaoke sort, with an amplifying head, and sang soulfully into it. It occurred to me for the first time that Ibrahim was, in common parlance, as pissed as a parrot. At one dread moment, he held the microphone back over his shoulder, pointing at me - would I like to sing along? - while flicking his fag-end through the open window, and was therefore driving at 100kph without any hands on the wheel at all. Strewth. Give me avian flu any day.
Modern Cairo Muslims are keen to demonstrate their liberal beliefs, the unorthodoxy with which they drink and dance, the harmony in which they live alongside Jews and Christians. They insist that "Islam is a very elastic religion," and that neither they nor it want to tell other Muslims how to behave.
There's a certain fabulous "elasticity" in the way they discuss why more Islamic women are taking the veil. They don't want to admit that their husbands force them, for that would suggest the Koran had an unattractively dirigiste side. Instead, they come up with all kinds of reasons for the veil's new popularity: 1) It's an economic thing. Most Egyptian women have curly hair and would love to have it straightened twice a week; unable to afford to do so, they cover it with a veil. 2) It's an Arab thing. Islam started out in Saudi Arabia, where (duh!) everybody covers their faces from the sun. 3) It pre-dates Islam. It goes back to Abraham, the father of all religions, who asked one of his wives to cover her face while he was receiving a message from the Archangel Gabriel...
You have to admire their ingenuity, as I did when I asked why Cairo men were such shocking drivers. "Things would be better if more women drove here," I was told. "But how can we give them a driver's licence when they won't unveil their faces for the photograph?"Reuse content