Notes from the Field

by Elias Blum

My ‘undisclosed location’ is unmistakably middle eastern. As a student of Arabic, I spent a lot of my time during my late teens and early twenties in the middle east. They were formative days. After my stint in Iraq though, I decided that I’d had enough of hot, sandy, dysfunctional places, and except for a few days in Cairo when I first joined this organisation, I haven’t been back there since.

Today, I had to leave our secure compound and go into town for sundry logistical matters (changing money, buying new sandals, getting hold of a cheap mobile to replace my one that died etc). There I was confronted with the old familiar smell of the middle east: a thousand years of encrusted sweat, cats’ piss and kebab fat, mingled with the scents of cheap cigarettes, gaudy male perfumes, and two-stroke petrol fumes.

It’s a heady, exotic mix. It takes me back to long nights prowling the streets of Zamalek in search of a kushari stand that would not give me dysentery, and happy carefreee days near Midan Tahrir – yes, that Midan Tahrir, the one that in 2011 was momentarily world famous as the centre stage of nascent democracy, but which I remember for its faded old colonial cafes and the constant chorus of taxi horns.

I like it. It excites in me the memory of that young orientalist, who dreamed of Lawrence and Doughty. It reminds me of ‘going mufti’, wearing a fez and jelabiyya indoors without the slightest feeling of self-doubt. One did not worry about ‘cultural appropriation’ then, only about cutting the right sort of dash while boldly escorting my bride-to-be (although neither of us knew that then) around Coptic Cairo.

But one or two things have changed from the middle east as I remember it. For a start, the man in the dirty shirt who takes your order in the kebab shop now punches it into an app on his smartphone, which alerts the kitchen. Back in my day, they would totter off behind swing doors, sometimes not to reappear for hours