It was the Bicentennial in Cairo and our plan was to go to the Embassy and eat American food. My friend Ken, with whom I was staying, had heard that the Paris and London embassies were putting on giant spreads, so on the Glorious Fourth we went to our embassy in Cairo looking for hot dogs, fried chicken and Budweiser. But the guards at the gate had turned us away, firmly but almost politely. Egyptian capitalists and government officials only, thank you very much. Get your lowly proletarian butt out of here.
So we had taken our lowly proletarian butts to Ken’s favorite American restaurant in Cairo --- a Wimpy’s.
When someone takes me to his or her favorite restaurant, I expect that the food will be good, or at least edible. But the Wimpyburger was a pathetic lukewarm paste made up of breadcrumbs and some material that might have once been part of an animal, but chances are the animal had not been a steer. The parfait that came with it seemed to be made out of dyed cotton wool and even the Coke tasted like the laxative my mother used to give me as a child. What on earth was special about this place?
I asked Ken, but he was unresponsive and just kept staring up at the ceiling. Or so I thought. He was actually staring out of the windows that were mounted just below the ceiling, since the restaurant was in a basement. At a certain angle, one could look up the skirts of the women passing by on the sidewalk. Ah. I understood. I saw that the restaurant was full of guys just like him paying premium prices for shit sandwiches so they could watch the floor (or ceiling) show.
Ken has a good friend at the Embassy who didn’t know that we had had a smashing Bicentennial evening, so to make amends he agreed to take Ken out for a decent dinner. When he came in and saw me, he turned pale. Cairo had changed me somewhat over the past weeks and when he looked into my sunken eyes and pale complexion mounted on a 6-foot tall 150-pound frame, all he could see was famine, pestilence, and bad publicity. So I invited, nicely, to stay home.
--- Why don’t you try that new restaurant around the corner? Uncle Sam’s? The one advertising authentic American fried chicken?
That was just the ticket. I was only just starting to feel better and I was hardly even pissing much blood these days. A quick authentic American fried chicken dinner, then early to bed was just what I needed. Have a good evening with your uptight friend, Mr. Kent! Don’t wake me up when you come in!
Uncle Sam’s had a picture of our national hawk-nosed scarecrow man out in front, done up in vivid patriotic colors. Like many cheap Cairo restaurants, one entered through the kitchen and walked upstairs to the restaurant proper. The place was not hopping. Aside from me, there were three young Kuwaiti men sitting in the corner at a table covered with chicken bones. The only other person there was a middle-aged Westerner drinking a beer and watching the Arabs with a sardonic look on his face.
I ordered the American special and was delighted to receive three burned pieces of desiccated chicken, a mound of stuffed grape leaves, and a tall glass of freshly pressed raw sugar cane juice. I skipped the juice and ordered a tall cold Stella beer. By this time, the Kuwaitis were locked in a death struggle over who was going to get to pick up the tab. (Fights between men trying to pick up the restaurant or coffee tab used to be responsible for most of the violence in the Middle East.) Somehow someone won and the three men boisterously left in robust good fellowship. Almost immediately, the waiter brought another beer, unordered.
--- The man at the other table said to give you this beer.
I looked across at him. He grinned and invited me over. He looked safe enough. I pegged him for a Brit or Australian, maybe a technician and probably ex-military. I paused for a moment to listen to my instincts, to the little guardian angel that used to sit on my right shoulder, who would from time to time whisper some advice in my ear. My angel said
--- ARE YOU CRAZY?! DON’T DO IT!! DON’T DO IT! YOU NEVER LISTEN TO ME! DON’T DO IT!
And I thought, what the hell, it’s just one beer. So I went over and sat down.
The man had not been a sex fiend or an axe murderer. He was a Brit ex-serviceman installing new printing equipment at Al Alhram, the big Cairo newspaper. He was getting paid very big bucks – twice. His salary in hard currency was going home to London to his wife. He got an equivalent salary in non-convertible Egyptian pounds.
--- But I can’t spend any of it, he complained. The paper pays for my apartment, servants, food, transportation… What am I going to do with this?
He pulled out of his pocket a wad of high denomination Egyptian notes the size of a head of cabbage.
The waiter happened to be standing there at that moment. His eyes started to water and the veins on his forehead popped out.
--- Ya Aini!
--- What can I spend it on but beer and booze, eh mate?
With my guardian angel yelling RUN! RUN! I said, Well, I guess I can have two drinks.
The waiter ran off like a man afire and in moments returned with the owner of the restaurant and a sinister looking boy with an eye disease.
--- Gentlemen, said the owner, I am the proprietor of Uncle Sam’s. Since you are such old and valued customers (it was the first time either of us had set foot in the place) I would like you to know that you are free to drink as much as you would like in a leisurely manner.
--- Right, then, said the Brit. Two more Stellas. And keep them coming.
The boy with the eye disease was apparently mute. He just sat and grinned widely like a simpleton and kept nodding his head.
--- Say, said the Brit to the owner, lowering his voice, you wouldn’t have anything a bit stronger, would you?
--- I am afraid not, sir. The establishment is licensed only for beer.
--- Ah. Too bad.
The Brit put a 20-pound note on the table.
--- Because I would be very willing to pay a premium for some decent spirits.
--- Perhaps I can go and arrange something, said the proprietor, taking the bill.
He didn’t have to go far. He and the waiter walked over to an eight-foot high windowed cabinet full of Nefertiti heads, papyrus pictures, and other tourist junk. The two of them physically pushed the cabinet and moved it over to our table. The Brit looked amused.
--- Hey Yank. Shall we buy a souvenir?
The showcase proved to be a false front, which slid aside with the application of a key, revealing a well-stocked liquor and cigarette cabinet. And as it happened, the key belonged to the strange looking boy with the eye problem who was apparently the restaurant’s black market connection and part owner.
--- Ah, White Horse, said the Brit lovingly, taking out a fifth. This will do nicely. Bring us some clean glasses.
He opened the cap and tossed it over his shoulder. When he poured me a generous fistful, my guardian angel said Screw This, I’m going to bed. You can find your own way home.
So I sat there and drank with him for nine more hours. We killed the first bottle, then a second, and who knows how many beers. I had a vague recollection that food kept coming. It was one of those times where two complete strangers meet and for a single evening tell their whole life stories to each other knowing that when they staggered out of the door they would never see each other again. I played for the first time a game with him that I have played with many Brits and Australians since. I call it ‘Push Me Pull You’. The Brit would say something bad about the United States. If I disagreed with him and defended the US, he would say more bad things. If I agreed with him, he would defend the United States and say something bad about England. If I disagreed, he would say more bad things about England. If I agreed, he would ask me who the hell I was to be saying bad things about England and he would say something else bad about America.
The owner kept the place open for us all night and the waiter and the black marketer (who only looked like he was 15; he was actually in his 40’s, a victim of the blood born disease schistosomiasis) rode it out with us to the bitter end. The waiter’s English kept getting better and better, especially after we started pouring him scotches too. At one point, he blurted out that he was a secret convert to Roman Catholicism and that his main goal in life was to move to Rome. (Cairo is full of Muslims, he confided with a slur.) The Brit offered to let me live in the empty four room servant quarters in his place rent free for as long as I wanted. I even seem to remember the black marketer paying for a round of drinks, although this might just have been a hallucination.
We finally ran out of steam, even the Brit, and we decided to leave before we got too weepy. The Catholic waiter pressed a cheap key chain into my hand that had a cross dangling from it that he swore had been blessed by the Pope. The Brit got another bottle of White Horse to go and he pressed wads of uncounted cash into every outstretched hand. The staff salaamed us all the way down the stairs and into the street.
We were happy. We staggered down the street arm in arm like two old fashioned sailors. We got to his place first and we woke up the doorman who tug-boated the Brit to the elevator. Then I went outside.
It felt cooler and for some reason, the streets were deserted, as though God or someone was loaning them just to me. I felt a radiant joy to be young and drunk in Cairo Egypt on a fine African morning. Even my guardian angel was sleeping peacefully. I knew I only had enough energy to make it back to Ken’s place or I would have gone for a long walk. I tiptoed through the lobby and managed not to awaken the doorman.
I felt a bit bad that I would be waking Ken up so early. But I needn’t have worried. When I walked through the door, he was grimly sitting in the same chair he had been sitting on the first night I had arrived. He was smoking a joint, drinking a beer and he was even wearing the same gallabiyah. He had waited up all night for me, because he knew that Mr. Bat had not one ounce of Arabic or street sense.
--- You might be dead in the gutter or eaten by wild dogs.
I just laughed.