Brushing with Death

First brush with militant Islam.

Cairo’s City of the Dead is more than just a cemetery; families have built homes on the graves of their ancestors, and the living outnumber the dead, although I’d bet title to the land is disputable. The City takes up a quarter of the city’s land area beyond the old walls, and the sense of joy among the children just – just – outweighs the unease I feel at the inevitable, yet toxic, combo of overwrought religion, zero schooling and extreme poverty.

I always trust my instincts. I trusted them when the local guides home in on the lone Westerner, and trusted them to find me the right one (in the end, a 65yo Bedouin named Fahti.) He took me into the heart of the dead, dirt streets and wood shacks, where whole dead cows hang from hooks in the midday heat and physical deformities are this season’s fashion hot trend.

There are a lot of little mosques here.

Ten streets in I get the first jostle. Two streets further, someone spits. One turn on, I clearly make out ‘bin Laden’ in an staccato babble of Modern Standard Arabic. Instincts screaming. My guide is cool, but being challenged by onlookers a little too frequently. I start thinking: what happens if you get attacked in a place like this? A klom outside law, where family and religion is all and there’s an unfortunate number of convenient pre-dug graves? I wouldn’t even be news; I’d simply disappear, encased in the oral histories of no more than five extended families.

I start to genuinely speculate how far I’d get if I just… Ran. I can just about see the old City wall in the distance. A kilometre? Three minutes, outrunning yelled jihads with a daypack on my back? It can’t all end here, surely?

I’ve got so much to live for. Business is great. Prospects are excellent. Back in London there’s a woman I really care for, and she doesn’t even know it yet. And besides, there’s NO WAY I’m dumping my cool new phone in this place (I’d call it ‘godforsaken’, except that’s precisely what it isn’t.)

In the end, I keep my nerve. And the crowd thins as we walk in a big C back to Cairo’s gates and a taxi. As I pay off my guide, I speculate on what might have happened… And how if it had, I think I’d have understood.

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