April Fool’s Day in Cairo
One of the things my son and I try to do, as we travel the world, is to celebrate occasions we would celebrate in the UK, whether our host culture celebrates them or not.
And today is April Fool’s Day in Cairo.
Now, Cairo, where we know few people, none of them of Z’s sort of age, is an unpromising location for a range of reasons, not least of them the sandstorm blasting out of the desert which turned the sun the blazing white of an incandescent lightbulb, obscured the Citadel and rendered an already dusty city an assault course for the respiratory system. (Did you know most Ancient Egyptian peasants died young of sand-related lung disease? I can well believe it.)
Further I was committed to spending the morning, or a chunk of it, at least, in the Mogamma, a gigantic Stalinist edifice on Tahrir Square with echoing “the troika will see you now” corridors that feel like something out of a Krzysztof Kieslowski film, completing our visa extension.
Z, strangely enough, opted out of this activity, of which the best that I can say is that it is quicker and more painless than some Indonesian visa extensions.
When I get back, it is long past 12 o’clock, and Z is Skyping his father through a headset. But a genius idea strikes me.
“Oh my god, Z,” I say, adopting a downcast expression that comes naturally when one has spent three and a half hours hanging around Tahrir and the Mogamma awaiting paperwork in a sandstorm. “I hate to tell you this. But they’re keeping our passports for another week. They have to go to the Ministry of the Interior. So we’re going to need to spend another week in Cairo.”
His face falls. “What?” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, warming to my theme, and recalling our Myanmar visa saga. “The Ministry of the Interior needs to check them out, which means, because we’re already overstaying now, we can’t pass any of the checkpoints outside Cairo… So, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Another week in Cairo? Seriously?”
“Yeah,” I say. “You saw how long I was gone? I couldn’t believe it when they said they’d kept our passports. But now they’ve got them, there’s nothing we can do. We can’t even leave the country.”
His face falls yet further. “APRIL FOOL!” I yell, producing our passports with a spingly-spangly full-page visa, complete with pyramids, for which, in the sort of perverse economics that dictatorships produce, I have paid about £2.50.
“It’s after 12,” he says. “Good one, though.”
“Let’s extend it,” I say. “We’re in Cairo, after all.”
“Oh no,” Z says into his headset, later. “No Paris?”
“What?!” I say, frantically Skyping a message to Z’s dad. It reads, “Is this an April Fool, or what?”
“Oh no,” he says again. He looks gutted. My heart bleeds. “Well, OK. You’re not coming?”
My heart does a little drop. Z’s dad was planning to be in the UK for Christmas when we were; when it became clear that his family were coming to Oz, so he was going to stay there too, it was too late to cost-effectively fly Z out of Hong Kong to Australia for the week before we returned to Europe.
We had, however, sorted out scheduling that sees S in Europe for June. Z will fly out to the UK from (most likely) Beirut to meet his dad, enjoy time with friends and family and a trip to Paris, then fly back into meet me, most likely in Tel Aviv. Now all of this is going tits-up. And S hasn’t even told me!
“What’s going on, Z?” I ask, tapping out yet another Skype message to S. He’s not answering, although he shows as online.
“We can’t go to Paris,” Z says, putting a brave face on what is clearly devastating him. “Budget issues. He can’t afford it. And he doesn’t think he’ll be able to come to London either.”
“Oh no,” I say, face collapsing. It’s been too long since Z has seen his father as it is. “My god! That’s terrible!”
“APRIL FOOL!” he says. “He’s having his dinner. He’s not on voice. I was winding you up.”
Which is when I begin to realise that my son has talent as an actor.
It is not an April Fool, unfortunately, when we taxi out to the fringes of the pyramids, to a children’s art school, and find it closed, despite a preliminary call – sandstorm stopped play, apparently.
Returning to town, we take a wander through Islamic Cairo, an activity I enjoy and Z endures, before cabbing it to his favourite restaurant, and ordering drinks.
“Mum!” he says. His face is grey. He looks terrible. “I don’t feel well.”
“WHAT?” I say, trying to think what he has eaten that could have made him ill (answer: quite a lot).
“I need the bathroom,” he says. He’s bent over, slightly, with a hand over his stomach.
“They’re over there,” I say.
He stands behind the waiter, virtually gagging into his hand. “Do you want me to come with you?” I say. He looks like he’s going to puke right there on the floor.
“No,” he says faintly, and stumbles off.
Bugger, I think. Rameses Revenge. That’s the last thing we need. We’ll be stuck in Cairo until that clears, because the train journey to Aswan is about 12 hours, and I can’t imagine the facilities are vomit-friendly.
I pick up my book and wait. He returns, looking still very, very green about the gills.
“Thank god you didn’t order, Mum,” he says.
“Are you OK?” I ask. “Were you sick? You look like you’ve been sick. You look terrible.”
“I’m not good, Mum,” he says.
“OK,” I say. “We’ve got drinks coming, but I’ll get the bill and we can go…”
“APRIL FOOL!” he cries.
There are four more hours to go of April Fool’s in Cairo. We have agreed no hiding pranks. This is a big city riddled with warrens and the security situation ain’t what it used to be under Mubarak.
Scoffing marshmallows, Z tells me his Opera has updated. “The good thing is, my Google search is no longer in Bulgarian,” he says. “The bad thing is, the results display from right to left. Even though they’re in English.”
“In English?” I say.
“In English,” he says, mouth twitching slightly.
“That’s an April Fool,” I say.
“You still owe me one Egyptian pound,” he says.
Then he beckons me to his computer. The search results do, indeed, align right. It looks bizarro.
“The true April Fool’s was in my confession,” he says. “You owe me two Egyptian pounds.”
As, indeed, I do.