A stranger approaches you walking the streets of a foreign land speaking clever English and inviting you for tea. It’s a common scene played out in the tourist districts of cities and countries the world over, and your instincts make you bunch your shoulders and turn to walk the other way. But for once the calling out seems genuine and you stop and listen to what he has to say. Then the trays of tea come out, and you’re almost certain you’ll be hit with an extortionate bill come time to pay. But you’re not, and the smooth-talking stranger even foots the bill. You speak for a while about work and love and politics, and though you’re two minds formed on opposite sides of the planet, it turns out you’re both troubled and inspired by the same things. The story of his work in tourism is rich in detail, and you’re forced to accept that either this man is a world-class liar, or he’s simply telling the truth.
But you’re not stupid. Before you accept the invitation to his friend’s for dinner on the other side of the Nile, you make an excuse to go back to your hotel to Google his name and the company he told you about. You expect to find nothing, but it checks out, and the two of you head across the city in a run-down, beat-to-shit, old van that’s supposed to pass for a bus. Do you smoke weed? Your new friend asks as the bus braces and jerks it’s way around the city. You nod, yeah, sure, and once he stops laughing he tells you he’s relieved. His friend is one of the biggest drug dealers in Cairo and he didn’t want you to feel uncomfortable. Two more vans, a tuk-tuk ride, and a 3-cent ferry, and you arrive at a house much too glamorous to be sitting among the slums and clay-brick houses surrounding it.
A man emerges wearing a long, white robe, and carrying a plastic bag filled with meals of rice and roast chicken, and although he speaks no English, he translates through your friend that he wants to take you to the best place to eat in Cairo. Once again you’re hurtling through the city’s splintered alleys and laneways in the back of a tuk-tuk, and you compliment the driver on his manic speed as he weaves between children, potholes, and donkeys. The three of them speak among themselves and your mutual friend translates, and it comes back that the man behind the wheel is the personal driver to your friend’s friend, and that you’re riding in one of his 7 different tuk-tuks.
He pulls the wheel hard to the left without touching the brakes and manages to throw the ride down the tightest of muddy alleyways. The 4 of you continue for a moment before stopping in front of a non-descript, grey building with both front windows caved in. They encourage you to climb through. You figure you’ve gone this far and might as well continue, so you break away some of the remaining glass and jump inside. The others follow, and together you head up 12 flights of stairs at the back of the building that all of a sudden open onto an unfinished top floor where you’re met with an uninterrupted view of the bleeding Cairo skyline. It was dodgy as hell getting there, but you can’t deny the beauty of the place.
You sit down 4 in a row looking out at the night with your feet hanging over the 6-story ledge and wait to see what happens next. Words in Arabic flow back and forth around you and you sit silent, oblivious to their meaning but hypnotised by their melody. The smell of hash permeates the air and breaks you from your trance. At least you know what that means. You share a few joints in silence, but from the first hit you feel like your head has detached and flown off from your body. You keep smoking with them until your whole being becomes fixed on the sound your mouth makes as you chew your chicken. Their Arabic starts to grow louder and more frantic, and a wave of paranoia crashes over you as you realise where you are. Stoned off your face and gnawing into a barbecue chicken, 4 floors above the Nile with a bunch of strangers.
You try and formulate an excuse to leave but the thoughts come scattered, and finally through the fog it becomes clear you have no idea where you are. The anxiety builds and you break out in a cold sweat as you notice the conversation stopped and all 3 of the others are staring right at you. Then your friend’s friend pulls out a knife and flicks the blade open in 1 smooth, practiced action. He looks you dead in the eye and says something in Arabic while your heart leaps screaming from your chest. Then, he takes the knife by the blade and gives the handle to you. It’s a special blade he uses for protection, and he asks you to do him the honour of preparing the next joint with it.
You’ve never cut up weed with a hunting knife before, and by now you’re so stoned that all your movements seem fragmented. You make a mess of the roll, but your friends are gracious and the 4 of you sit and blow smoke together out into the jet-black Cairo sky. The white-robed Arabian sits like a modern-day king, head and shoulders above the city side by side with us, his minstrels, ruling over a dilapidated corner of his own messed up world where few others have dared to tread. When it’s time to go you slide slowly back from the ledge in an exaggerated effort to stay away from the drop, then look around laughing as you watch your companions do the same. Hugs, and kind words are exchanged, then in a final act of generosity, the self-proclaimed biggest drug dealer in Cairo instructs his driver to take you the 45-minute journey back to your hotel. You know you should be thankful to have gotten through the evening unharmed, but your head feels like jelly, and the rumbling sound of the engine has you much too distracted. You’re driven back downtown with the wind rushing past and numbing your face, then with a hug and a final goodbye, you’re dropped outside your hotel to head upstairs and crash out, falling asleep face down on your bed.