5th of May 2006, somewhere in the White Desert (known as Sahara el Beyda), Farafra, Egypt, 4 am.
A strange sensation pulls me out of my sleep. “Something” is licking my toes and for a second, my whole body freezes out of fear. I open my eyes and slowly raise my head to see “what” is getting down to lick my foot. In the obscurity, I catch the glimpse of two long large ears on a small head with fluorescent eyes. I release a sigh of relief. It’s a fennec. Those cute little foxes living in the desert. It must have been attracted by our stock of food, and probably the smell of my feet.
I am glad I did not scream out, waking up the whole camp for nothing. I am looking around, everyone is peacefully asleep. The campfire is slowly dying but I can still hear the crackling sound of the flames. The millions of stars are shining bright, I can’t find my sleep anymore. I get out of my sleeping bag for a walk. I want to enjoy the surroundings at dawn, when the desert awakes.
The scenery of the White Desert is quite unreal. It is strewn with alien shapes and boulders of glossy white, which stand up right from the surface of the desert. The rocks are coloured from snow white to cream colour. I feel like walking into space, on another planet or in the setting of a science fiction movie. The history of the White Desert is incredible, it makes the place magical and completely out of this world.
70 million years ago, the sea covered the east part of Egypt. The White Desert used to be a seabed for 30 million years before disappearing. During this period of time, some white limestone was built upon the ground, reaching a thickness of 300 metres. After the withdrawal of the sea, the erosion has never stopped to shape and work the limestone. That is why the White Desert is famous for its spectacular white stone mushrooms, shaped by the wind erosion and contrasting with the ergs of yellow sand.
There are also many fossils left by the sea and its marine flora like seashells and other non-identified objects shaped in the most improbable ways.
It’s hard for me to believe that I am here. Standing next to these massive stone mushrooms and contemplating a masterpiece that only nature can create. I feel little, so little. Silence and wildness prevail on human marks. It’s a place of solitude and there’s something very spiritual about it. The White Desert is a yellow and white planet filled with giant stone mushrooms and curious objects left by the vestiges of the past.
As I keep walking, I can see the boulders, crowding together at different places, creating shapes resembling animals or humans. As dawn crawls in, the shapes seem to shift with the constant change of natural lighting. The furtive silhouettes of fennecs wandering around are the only living sound that I hear.
I stop my wander and sit on the sand for a little while. The sky becomes lighter. The shiny stars slowly disappear. The pastel colours on the horizon and the yellow shades indicate that the sun is going to rise soon.
I stand up and shake my bottom covered with sand. I’d better get back to the camp.
10th of June, on the way to Khan-el-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt, 10 am.
“I would like to go to Khan-el-Khalili” I say to the taxi driver with my very poor Arabic skills.
The taxi driver shakes his head, meaning get in, get in! I jump in and I have not closed the door yet that he starts to drive.
I am meeting my friend Karima for a coffee/shisha and a stroll at the zouk. Khan-el-Khalili is the main souk in the historic centre of Islamic Cairo. The bazaar district is one of the most popular attractions and probably the most lively area of the city.
I get off the taxi and wave at Karima who’s waiting for me at the entrance. I met Karima when I arrived in Cairo 3 months ago. She’s French with a Moroccan background and we rapidly became inseparable.
“How much are the slippers?” I ask the woman of a little shop filled with hundreds of colourful oriental slippers.
“400 EGP,” she says smiling at me.
“Don’t be a fool, she is trying to rip you off, it is not worth that much, let me handle it,” whispers Karima. After an animated conversation in Arabic, Karima turns back with a proud smile on her face.
“I got them for half the price.” Since I have arrived in Cairo, Karima has been my white knight, saving me from the unscrupulous merchants.
Khan-el-Khalili lives day and night. The souk is a busy little village that never sleeps. The first time I went there, it made me dizzy, the heat was unbearable and the cacophony of sounds was intense. Then the places become more familiar, every time I visit. The merchants know me well now and greet me politely.
I like wandering in the narrow alleys, there is always something new to discover. It’s a real cavern of Ali Baba in there. The warm colours, the smell, the shiny carpets and hessian on the walls make the place very welcoming and cosy. My favourite stalls are the spice ones. I love the palette of bright colours, yellow, orange, red. The mountains of spice powder in their jar are beautifully even and symmetrical. The scents emanating are strong in flavour but I like it. It makes me want to cook.
The delicious smell of the pastries always tickles my nostrils when I walk past the pastry stalls. I love Arabic pastries, especially the gazelle horns called Kaab el ghzal. These little Moroccan treats stuffed with almond paste make the taste buds dance in my mouth.
We decide to stop with Karima at a café to have a coffee and smoke a shisha.
Also known as “hookah” or “nargila”, shisha is the ornate, Arabian water pipe through which Egyptians while away the hours, toking contentedly on fruit-scented tobacco.
Smoking a shisha alone, or with some company, forms the basis of much Egyptian social life. The first time I tried, I liked it because of the flavour and the bubbly sound of the water when you inhale. I naively thought it was healthier than a cigarette but rest assured that a shisha contains as much as nicotine and other nasties as cigarette tobacco.
Egyptians usually smoke apple flavoured shisha. Other flavours such as strawberry, watermelon, orange and even coffee also exist but they are mainly for tourists.
“Wahad shisha tufa min fudluck” (One apple shisha please), I ask with my clumsy Arabic accent. It is probably one of the only sentences I can say properly.
We also order a Turkish coffee. The thick texture and strong flavour surprised me the first time I had it. But like many things here, I got used to it.
I’ve found out that Turkish coffee is made by boiling very finely ground coffee beans with water and usually sugar, then serving into cups, where the grounds are left to settle.
After our little coffee break, we’re strolling back in the zouk, wandering around until getting lost. What I like the most about Khan-el-Khalili is that the place is always brimming with little treasures that are delightful for the eyes and the senses.
15th of July, Alexandria, Egypt, 3 pm,
“Wow!” I shout, not able to contain my astonishment and waking up the whole study room.
“Shhhhht!” says the man at the reception with a reprimanding look.
I can’t believe I am inside The Royal Library of Alexandria. This monument used to be the largest library in the world and the most significant library of the ancient world. It was dedicated to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the Arts.
The heritage is colossal and I can feel the extraordinary history behind these walls. Even though, the library has been restored today by modern infrastructures.
There’s a mythical atmosphere reigning in this place. As I am walking around, exploring the rooms, I am learning the incredible story of a monument whose mystery still keeps inspiring and haunting the minds.
The Great Library, with its impressive and unique collections of works, books, scrolls filled with knowledge of many ancient civilizations, lecture halls, and gardens, was part of a larger institution called the Museum of Alexandria. It was a place for arts, literature, philosophy and science. Many of the most famous thinkers and writers of the ancient world studied there: Homer, Plato, Socrates and more.
It is popularly believed that the library has been destroyed in a huge fire around 2,000 years ago and its voluminous works were lost. The destruction of the Library has haunted the imagination of poets, historians, travellers and scholars, who have lamented the tragic loss of knowledge and literature.
As an old Literature student and very passionate about it, it is quite unreal to be in that place. I spent many years learning and studying about these great thinkers, reading and analysing their philosophy and masterpiece. And now I am standing where they stood, I am walking where they walked, I am thinking where they used to think. I feel extremely moved, honoured and grateful to be here.
I leave the Great Library fulfilled and dreamy, my imagination filled with pictures of a glorious past.