Cairo – Amber Cowie

She was adorned with gold coloured metal coins, from the belt wrapped around the waist of her chiffon harem pants to her richly bedecked bra. The coins chimed; a collection of delicate bells, with every hip movement or undulation. A man several paces behind her played a monotonous drum beat seemingly putting the room into a trace while a flute played a bewitching melody that drifted over the whole scene.

We had just sat down at a stage side table in a club of indistinct nature. Although the room was dark, lit by a scattering of muted ceiling fixtures and small oil lamps on the tables, you could still make out the paint peeling off the walls and the stains on the dark carpet. Hookah smoke permeated the small space and the sweet scent wafted through the room, somewhat concealing the smell of mothballs and damp. The smoke was coming from the only other patrons in the joint, a corner table of three, older Egyptian men.

We were in Cairo for a model united nations conference, where teenagers pretend to be delegates of great nations and hash out issues of global importance in a play-play manner. I was Russia. I’d met a rag tag group of kids from my country; they were all from the same boarding school and seemed to have a reckless determination to make this trip something to remember.

On the second night we had decided to go AWOL in the attempt to discover what a night in Cairo could serve up. Bundled into a cab, the five of us made our way to the only spot the concierge could think of, a hard rock café. After a disappointing attempt to get served, we were underage and looked it; we left to find another source of alcohol on an arbitrary weeknight. We discovered a grubby bottle store, grabbed some vodka and found ourselves in a deserted McDonald’s, eating tahina burgers and heavily spiking our sodas.

Here we met Mikey, a tiny man, dressed in an orange windbreaker, lime shorts and sneakers, he was not what you expected to find on the streets of Cairo. His hair was shaven and he had a look of a man so very alive, or possibly very high. He started chatting with the spokesman of the group; Vuyo, smart, with reams of confidence. He was the kind of guy that’s adored by his teachers and loved by other people’s parents regardless of his misgivings.

Mikey joined our table. He swapped me one of his multiple rings for some vodka and was delighted with the trade. Vuyo and TK started a passion filled discussion with Mikey about the political state of Egypt while I chatted with the youngest of our group. A ginger from Botswana with a premature receding hairline, he was highly intelligent and funny as hell. We were joined by Coco, the only other female in our group, cute, the type that always seemed ‘game’.

A couple of drinks down, a lanky young foreigner with a backpack walked in, drawn by the golden arches of western comfort. Being slightly inebriated we struck up a conversation and proposed he join us. We asked the American where around here we could find a bar. This was before cell phones were capable of sophisticated navigation or lonely planet apps that tell you where to drink. The American was planning on checking out a belly dancing spot a couple of blocks away; a trader at the Khan market had advised him. I couldn’t tell if his plan was a tad creepy or just culturally curious.

I had overeagerly guzzled down my fair share of the vodka, out of fear that I wouldn’t get my ‘fair’ share. This made the walk over to the belly dancing joint a laughter filled, trip-a-minute journey. Once we arrived the mood changed somewhat, Coco and I were the only women in the joint. It seemed plausible that late night belly dancing viewing in crusty bars is the Egyptian equivalent to going to a strip club.

All my thoughts about the strange nature of current events became amplified as the belly dancer made her way down to the crowd and grabbed Cocos hand with her left and mine with her right.

The next moment I found myself on the stage getting a belt scarf of tiny coins wrapped around my waist and a tutorial on how to move my hips. After a minute or so of this I looked up and began to fully grasp where I was, as well as the problematic length of my dress. Coco, having discovered a talent for moving her abdomen, was having the fucking time of her life. As I tried to untie the coin covered wrap I became aware of an Egyptian man in his 40s slowly make his way over to our table, he looked unimpressed to say the least. I lay the wrap down on the side of the stage, asking the nearest waiter where the bathroom was.

He pointed down a dark back corridor and gestured that I take a right at the end. I made my way down and turned the corner to what was essentially a hole in a broom closet, the door had no latch. I lent against the damp peeling wall just out of sight and stared at an interesting pattern of mould that fell into my line of vision. I tried to refocus my thoughts; I closed my eyes and found myself in baseless motion, yet the effort of opening them again seemed too great. I could still hear the faint sound of the monotonous drum accented with the murmur of the flute. My mind was murky, I heard quick muffled footsteps advancing down the corridor, suddenly my left hand was grabbed and I was being pulled back up the corridor.

It was Vuyo, he told me in a panicked voice that we had to leave right now. We emerged back into the dining room and I saw the backs of three men standing at our table while the American tried to placate them. The beat of the drum had quickened and the dancer was shimmying in unison. I could see now, she was undoubtedly weathered and far older than I had thought. Coco looked shaken, standing to the side slightly hidden by the young ginger and TK. The room had filled up in my absence; another table had arrived with the same demographics.

We swiftly crossed the room as one of the men increased the volume of his agitation while pointing at Coco. There was a telepathic understanding that we needed to get the hell out of there. We slipped out the door and made our way up the alley to the main road. My question as to what actually happened was fobbed off.

When we got back to the hotel repeatedly ringing my hotel room’s doorbell did nothing to stir my roommates, they were out cold. I crashed with Coco, she barely murmured a thing about the preceding events.

Her alarm went off at 6am and I found myself in the corridor in last nights dress holding my shoes and ringing my hotel room doorbell once again, I rested my head against the door until I heard movement. One of my roommates groggily opened the door; still disoriented she gave me a sleepy hug, zombie walked five steps and face-planted her bed. As I was about to step in I glanced to my right and saw our supervisor closing her door, and staring right at me. I gave a weak smile before quickly slipping into the room to have a hot shower before a day of defending Russia’s stance on handling the global issue of child soldiers.

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