I pack my books as carefully as I pack my clothes. And I pack real books so I’m very careful, although I shed them as I go along, which proves that I am generous and also that I hate luggage. This obsession goes back a long way, to when I hit the trail overland to India before it was a trail, years ahead of the Lonely Planet founders even. I left from Venice, where I was staying with friends who had just come back. They gave me a seashell because I wouldn’t see the sea again until I hit Bombay, told me to remember that we all see the same moon no matter where we are, said I needed a book to read and handed me Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I was traveling with an Englishman who had just graduated Cambridge and had an entire backpack of books (and not one change of underwear). The ones I remember are: The Golden Bough by James George Frazer, The Secret Doctrine by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and The Murder of Christ by Wilhelm Reich. I would not be borrowing any of these. But enough history.
Truth is, I carried Catch-22 for the next five years and never even opened it. Somewhere on the road, I traded it for a Mars Bar. But I’m seasoned now. I still make mistakes (easily shed) but if you’re going to Egypt, even if it’s just in your imagination, have I got the books for you.
Parker Bilali is the pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub, who was born in London but grew up in Sudan and two of his books are detective mysteries set in contemporary Cairo: The Golden Scales and Dogstar Rising. Makana is the detective with a sad past, a former police inspector in Sudan, he’s now a private investigator in the chaos of Cairo, living in a rented houseboat on the Nile, too broke to pick and choose his cases which means he meets up with all sorts of unsavory characters in his adopted city. Bilalis spins a story but he also takes the pulse of modern Cairo, it’s problems and its past. An Egyptian activist friend, who left his position at NYU to become chair of the history department at the American University of Cairo, jokes that Egypt suffers from the “Curse of the Pharohs.” If it’s not thousands of years old, he says, no one is interested. As Bilalis writes in Dogstar about a tour guide: “He now unravelled the arcane mysteries of the pharoahs for eager visitors in Chinese and Spanish…People came from all over the world. They saw the same mess that Markana saw, but they paid a lot more for it.” You can sense the city in these books, from the cafes and fancy shops of Zamalek to the crowded arcades where: “Broken windows had been covered with flattened cardboard boxes held together with adhesive tape on which Mickey Mouse and his friends gambolled jauntily along.”
Taking a trip down the Nile, or up the Nile? (The Nile flows up, or something confusing like that. What should be lower Egypt (the southern part of the country) is actually “Upper Egypt.” I can’t help you with this. I have a terrible sense of direction. But I can tell you to take along the Penguin Classic, Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour which is “A Narrative drawn from Gustave Flaubert’s Travel Notes & Letters.” Flaubert left France in the Fall of 1849 for a tour of the “Orient”. He travels by camel and horse, spends time with prostitues, including one who performs the famous “Bee” dance for him, sees slaves being transported from the south on barges, visits the temples and pyramids and the ancient tombs where families were living with their sheep and goats. “We get up early and stand on the street near the Bab el-Futuh to await the caravan. Women peering from windows under the eaves of the moucharbieha-they veil themselves as soon as they notice they are being looked at. Sitting on a camel, a man naked to the waist, swaying rhythmically like a dervish.”
And for a visit to the Western Desert, there’s Equilateral, a novel by Ken Kalfus, set in the late nineteeth century, when Europe was obsessed with making contact with extraterrestials and a British astronomer begins a project in the desert, using 900,000 Arab fellahin to dig an equilateral triange with 300 miles to a side that he expects the martians to see from outer space at a precise moment in time.
I did give Catch-22 another chance a few years ago. I left it unread on some hotel lobby bookshelf.