In the week and a half I’ve been in Cairo a lot of Egyptians have assumed I’m a spy, which I suppose isn’t that strange. There aren’t many tourists around, but there are a number of Americans here on Sept.-11-related business. My first night the DJ at the hotel bar introduced me to a young lawyer who said he worked at the embassy. The guy copped pretty quickly to the fact he was with the FBI, maybe so I wouldn’t think he was CIA—or maybe he just never got to tell another guy at a bar before that he was an FBI agent. Then just now at the barber there were a couple of big, young American guys with Southern accents refining their buzz cuts and getting mud facials. One of them was calling a girl on his cell phone and found out he’d called the wrong girl. His buddy laughed loudly. The barber shook his head. “Jaysh,” he said under his breath. Army.
So, the Egyptians want to know why I’m here. To study Arabic, I explain, which still doesn’t quite explain it as far as most are concerned—except for Omar Sharif. I met him at a party last night. “I see, you’re sort of a nicer version of the American Taliban, aren’t you?” he asked. “Tell me if I’m wrong. I’m not wrong very often, and I like to know when I am. But it’s your Orientalist fantasy that’s brought you here, isn’t it?”
That’s a question I have a good answer for, but not when Omar Sharif asks it. Because when Omar Sharif asked it, and with me having seen Lawrence of Arabia about 15 times, I thought he was really asking me if I wanted to ride across the Great Nefud desert with him and kick some Ottoman ass at Aqaba. He’s definitely one of my idols, and I’m happy to say that even if he doesn’t play such a sweet, warm guy in all his movies, in real life he’s an incredibly sweet, warm guy. For instance, I don’t think he freaked out too much when I told him that we shared the same birthday. We didn’t talk about Aqaba—this time—but we did talk about horses. I’d seen a big, beautiful Arabian earlier in the day when I’d gone out to ride by the pyramids, and it must be an index of how accustomed I’ve gotten to Cairo that the pyramids are more of a setting than an end in themselves.
The pyramids are sort of the opposite of Cairo apartment buildings. Where the pyramids have lasted thousands of years, and there’s nothing inside them but other tourists, the buildings all look from the outside like they’re about to fall apart, and the interiors are amazing. The most remarkable one I’ve seen is Amr’s, a friend of a former colleague at Talk magazine. We sat in his living room and drank vodka by the fireplace, which is a rarity in Cairo and so here seems like the center of the room. It’s got several different pairs of plaster arms or hands on either side of it, so I understood it as kind of a makeshift sphinx where the fire is the body. We spoke some about Akhenaten and Nefrtiti, and that goofy American movie about Akhenaten’s doctor, Sinoue, called The Egyptian. Like most Egyptians, Amr is a big movie fan. He has this great series of 12 paintings of Egyptian actresses from the golden age of Egyptian film, roughly the ‘30s through the ‘60s.
“That’s Taheya Cariocca,” Amr said, pointing to one in the middle. “She was a great dancer. She barely moved at all. Everything was very subtle with her, incredibly sexy.”
We finished our drinks and got a cab to the party. It was 11, and dinner was still a long way off. Amr introduced me around the room—actors, businessmen, professionals, most were in their 50s, Egyptian baby boomers, as another guest put it, almost all of whom had been friends for a long time. The belly dancer and I were the only new faces, I think.
“See,” said Amr, when the music came on and she started to dance, “she’s not moving too much. That’s good.”
And then of course she started to float around the living room, flirting and making big faces. A young woman looking on leaned over toward me. “She’s just loaded with self-confidence, isn’t she?” she said. I’d been wondering what younger Egyptian women made of belly dancing. Maybe it was just this particular dancer that set her off, but the older women loved it, shouting along and clapping. It was getting late, a house music version of an Umm Kulthoum song had come on, Omar Sharif was busy conjugating an Arabic verb, and I was explaining to a Lebanese businessman named Michel that I was writing about Arab culture. “So it must have been nice for you to meet Omar tonight,” he said. I asked him if he knew that Omar Sharif and I have the same birthday.