The cab pulled away, weaving through the pandemonium with practiced abandon. A bus hurtled by, men leaning from its open doors at alarming angles. There were no windows at all, and smoke – whether cigarette or diesel – poured from the vehicle in waves. Evan tried to look through his papers but lurching of the car prevented him from doing anything but gripping the door and hoping the whole contraption didn't fall to pieces.
For his part, the driver carried on a blistering flow of conversation into his cell phone while smoking the battered remains of cheap Egyptian cigarette. Occasionally, he blew his nose with great gusto on tissues from gaudy tin box on the dashboard, painted gold and laced with Qu'ranic verses. Evan wondered if the thing possessed some religious purpose – perhaps tissues needed some special blessing from Allah - or whether it was just supposed to add to the interior design of the car. This already featured a lurid, zebra-patterned acrylic fur dashboard, a Qu'ranic verse in window decals and a good luck charm to ward off the evil, eye swaying from the rear-view like loose rigging on a ship.
The traffic slowed to a crawl. The driver leaned out the window, uttered a few choice Arabic curses, and then retreated from a volley of equally enraged responses like an alarmed hermit crab pulling into its shell.
“It is the government,” he apologized in Arabic. “The traffic is bad because they are coming.”
“To give a speech?” replied Evan.
“No, just driving across 26th July.” It was one of the major bridges arching across the Nile. Mr. X sighed. An official motorcade locked down the snarled roadways of Cairo for hours as it roared by at full speed with its motorcycles, armored trucks and limousines,. Any politician or officer with enough clout could command one, a privilege abused as often as possible in the otherwise impassable Cairene gridlock. “Inshallah, it will not be long.” The driver shrugged and lit another cigarette and leaned back in his seat.
“Inshallah,” replied Evan, echoing the Egyptian fatalism. Everything in Egypt operated on that principle - If Allah wills it. Inshallah, the work will be done tomorrow. Inshallah, we will have fair elections. Inshallah, I will be paid today – and if not, inshallah it will be tomorrow! All business conducted as if man had but a passing influence on the events of the world. On the one hand, as a philosophy of life, it dissolved many day-to-day cares. On the other, some problems were too important to trust to Allah's inconsistent influence.
“You would like cigarette?” Evan shook his head. “You are American, yes?”
“Egyptians like Americans very much, you know,” he said, with the air of a man bequeathing mystical truths. “We like the American people very much. It is only...” Here he paused, dragging deeply on his cigarette. “It is only your President. Bush is very bad, and hates Egyptian people, Muslim people. But we know that your President and your people are different. We love the American people.”
“I don't doubt it. Everyone is very friendly.”
“Yes! Egyptian people are the world's friendliest. Did you know that?”
“I'm not surprised.” Evan began to wish he had taken the cigarette, just so he would have something else to besides sit with his hands awkwardly on his lap.
“Ah, but we are very bad, too. Many will try to rob you – try to cheat you! You must be very careful that nobody tries to cheat you.” The driver shook his head sadly. “It's a great problem, really. Nobody follows the law, and everybody tries to steal. Especially the government, they are the worst. Look at this – all these people waiting, and why? A minister in a hurry.”
E leaned forward. “Do many people feel this way? About the ministers, and the government?”
“Of course! Everybody is tired of it. But what can you do? Things are like that.”
“Yes. Still, maybe someday things will be better.”
“Inshallah.” That seemed to be the end of it. The traffic began to flow again as the police escort's wailing sirens disappeared back into the city. They moved forward by fits and starts that became the dashing, swerving combat of traffic.
“Of course I'm not smuggling drugs!” Samira Mohammed Crane folded her arms and tossed waves of thick, black hair over her shoulder. The customs official, a fat, passive man with the obstinate demeanor of a camel, stared back at her. Her eyes, like round obsidian flakes, sparked with anger. He held up a clear packet of syringes and three vials of smoky liquid.
“What is the purpose of these, please?” he asked in English.
“For the millionth bloody time, I'm diabetic.” The man stared blankly. Samira switched into a stiff but educated Arabic. “I have sugar in my blood and I need to take injections. Understand? Diabetes, the disease.”
“Ah, diabetes. Marhaba,” he replied, accented with the heavy drawl of a Saidi, from the south of Egypt.
“Do you have a letter?”
“A letter, for permission.”
“Permission for what?”
“Permission to have drugs for the diabetes.”
“I need the drugs. I don't have any letter. You, you absolutely...” She burst out into English, “You silly little man!”
He shrugged with all the resignation of a bureaucrat at last back on comfortable ground. “I'm sorry, but without a letter of permission it is not possible.”
Samira looked around the terminal entrance in dismay. All around, tourists lugged behemoths on little black wheels across the spotted tile flour. An Egyptian man wearing alligator loafers and a pinstriped suit with a turqoise shirt stood amongst a small group of them, holding a sign saying A&O Tours.
“Excuse me,” she said, picking the plastic bag and striding over to the tour guide. “Yaa raab,” she greeted him quietly.
The man's expression leaped from boredom to leering enthusiasm. “How may I help you, madmoiselle?” he replied.
“I'm sorry, but the customs are giving me trouble. Do you think you could take me with your group.”
“No problem at all, madmoiselle. My name is Tareq Ramadan. But what is...”
“Not important.” With a smooth handshake born of tipping maitre'des at a hundred London restaurants, she slid twenty Egyptian pounds into his hand.
“It's my honor,” he said with an oily smile.
She loitered for a few moments, watching the customs official stolidly inspect the bags of unlucky travellers. When the group finally gathered, more than a few stared at the slight, dark woman with the finely tailored suit who had joined into the little huddle of nylon windbreakers, khaki shorts and digital cameras. With a smirk and a nod from the tour leader, the whole group swept past customs with grand indifference.
As she slipped away from the group, Tareq tried to interrupt her exit. “Pardon, madame, but please tell me your name. Perhaps...”
“Fatima,” she replied, letting her hand linger in his for a moment and then peeling off into the turbulent crowds of Cairo International Airport.