I took a trip up the motorway towards Alexandria this week from the mad city of Cairo to see old Mohamed Hussainein Heikal.
I have to say "old" in quotation marks because Mohamed is still a young man and I hope he lives for at least another 10 years. This would make him 96 years years old, three years older than my First World War father and five years older than the current president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, who will be 81 in May. Every time I say goodbye to Mohamed in Egypt, I pray that I will see him again, and his driver. (He is from Aswan and he is, of course, darker skinned and also called Mohamed.) If Allah wills, as we must all say here.
I said the same when I got on the plane back to Beirut this week – the best thing about Cairo is an aircraft with a cedar tree painted on the tail flying to Lebanon – and he agreed. I will not tell you what Mohamed (Heikal) and I talked about because the last time we did this, I dumped him in a load of problems and I do not want to do this again. (Be sure, he will be reading this as you, reader, read this.)
But we did discuss death and age and I told him that there are only three great Egyptians: the pharaoh Ramses, Nasser, and Mohamed Hussainein Heikal. He led me into the garden of his farm in the Egyptian delta and we sat amid the bougainvillaea and agreed that we had never been in the Middle East in a worse or a more dangerous war. I also pointed out to him that since he already lived in paradise, there was no point in dying.
Hosni Mubarak is a man I have often criticised. But he is a human being and I recall all too well how he attended the funeral of Hafez al-Assad's son, Basil, in Qardaha in Syria, who was to be his Caliph (let us speak frankly) in Syria and how, as Hafez was close to fainting, Hosni came to Hafez's side and held his arm as a brother.
This week, Hosni's grandson, Mohamed Alaa, died, aged 12, and his wife (Susanna) called the presidential palace and told them not to tell the president that his grandson was dead. What will be the future of Hosni? No doubt, President Barracka (as my Irish friend calls him) will be thinking the same this week.
I do have to say that on this night I was invited to speak at a bookshop in the Cairo suburb of Mohandesin (the "engineers", if you want it translated) to speak about the Middle East, and I repeated what Mohamed Heikal and I had said: that the region, in our life, had never been so dangerous.
There was a man with long, flowing white hair, who said that he was an Egyptian nationalist and that he cared more about Egypt as a state than as an Arab nation, that he wanted to preserve the security of "the Egyptian national state" more than he did the Arab state. I told him that he should care more about justice than he seemed to care about security and the audience, almost all of whom were less than 30 years old, burst into applause. And I believed that Egyptians – yes, the Egyptians of Mubarak – would understand the future and be able to talk about it.
And I was interviewed by three young Egyptian women who asked serious, educated questions, and I asked myself – I have to repeat this question – whether the Egyptians were not better educated than I had remembered, and that perhaps Mohamed Hussainein Heikal, with our old memories, had not got Egypt wrong. I drove back to Cairo with Mohamed (yes, the old Aswan Mohamed) and I asked him to point out to me the Pyramids. And there they emerged, on the right of the car, the Pyramids of Cheops, Chephren and Mycerinus, and there they were, brilliant against the sunshine, full of life and power and danger, and I stared at them in great awe and love and wondered why I ever got tired of Egypt.
Then I boarded next day my MEA flight to Beirut and shared a glass of champagne with a Druze friend and businessman who said that yes, he too, wanted to fly home to Lebanon from Egypt every time he came to Cairo. We will meet this week for dinner. Readers, yes, will be kept informed.
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