I knew it would be an adventure
I arrived in Cairo with 1000 Chinese RMB in cash. No one had any interest in buying it on the black market. Eventually I ended up with 600 Egyptian pounds after a very disadvantageous deal. I showed up at a hostel near Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the Revolution, on Election Day 2012. I knew there would be protests to photograph; more importantly I knew it would be an adventure. I got what I asked for.
After checking in and taking a cold shower, I wandered to a café with a book and ordered a shisha pipe. Within half an hour, a guy sat down at my table and said he was waiting for a friend, and would I mind if he sat with me? Why not? We got talking, and he said he had just voted for the populist candidate Sabahi. By the way, would I mind helping him get duty free cigarettes on my tourist visa? No problem. He helped me get a SIM card. Did I want to get dinner and smoke some hash with him? I said no to hash, yes to dinner. I didn’t totally trust him, and I didn’t want to be high in a place with severe penalties for use. I went to his flat and he bought hash. This was not the plan, but it happened.
He went to take a shower and I was left sitting in his room for a long time in a very, very local part of Cairo. I would not have felt safe leaving without him. He came back, sweaty-groggy-alert, sweaty-groggy-alert. I asked him what was wrong.
He was on heroin and cocaine. I’d seen people on both before, but not at the same time. Rather than leveling out somewhere between up and down, it alternated every few seconds. Warning bells were going off in my head, telling me to get the fuck out. I stayed.
His friend came over and they tried convinced me to take a couple hits of a joint. I did. Eventually, I announced it was time for me to go back to my hostel, and they led me to the street. I have a good sense of direction, so when we went past the place we had left the cab earlier I queried his route. He told me I should trust him, he knew the roads.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, boom. His friend was slapped up against a wall and shaken down. A guy shoved a semi-automatic pistol to my head. My asshole puckered. I saw trackmarks on an arm. More heroin. I was shoved roughly into a car, and naturally I complied. You don’t argue against a semi-automatic. We went to the ATM, where I emptied my account. I gave them everything – all $700 I had left. In an odd act of humanity, they gave me 15 Egyptian pounds (about 2 dollars) and told me to fuck off to Tahrir. I did.
The next day, I woke up dejected and tried to buy a flight to London on overdraft. My card didn’t allow it. I packed my bag and left the hostel, collecting 10 Egyptian pounds from every guest I could. With a backpack on my back and a face like death I set off through Cairo, unsure what to do. I had called my friend on Skype the night before, and he had promised to send me some money to help me buy a plane ticket, but due to Memorial Day weekend, the money would take five days to arrive. I didn’t have enough money to last me five days. I barely had enough for lunch.
I wandered down Talaat Harb towards Tahrir and a voice stopped me. “Hey man, want to buy perfume?” I continued walking.
“Hey man, I’m talking to you. You ignoring me?”
“Please leave me alone. I just got robbed. I have nothing.” He immediately offered to help. His name was Ashraf. He sat me down in a café and got me tea and shisha.
“Tell me what happened.” I told him. I figured there was nothing to lose.
“I know the motherfucker you’re talking about. Is his name Osama?”
“How did you know?”
“That motherfucker put me in prison over a heroin deal. I will get your money back and beat him to death.” I warily accepted his offer to help but urged him not to commit murder.
A short while later, a few goons showed up and they went out searching for him. I was told to stay at the café. A few hours passed and Ashraf came back sweating and excited. They had him a different café. I walked into a square and was handed a shisha. A man in his mid-twenties came up and told me he was watching and that he would protect me should anything happen. He mentioned that the police were watching too. After a while, the police ended the argument. Osama was claiming he had nothing to do with the robbery – he didn’t set me up. Finally, the police marched him off to the police station and told me to come with them as well. They said I had nothing to worry about.
Osama pleaded with me not to send him to prison. I needed my money from his flat so I wrote a statement. The police knew it was false but let him go. He had split up the money between his gang so I was left with about $200. Not enough for a plane ticket, but it got me a hotel room for a few nights while I waited for my friend’s money.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire
I smoked shisha with Ashraf that night and thanked him profusely. Of course, I’d had to pay him and Mohamed (one of his goons) some money for helping me out, but I didn’t mind that – without them I’d have had nothing. After a while, they demanded I smoke hash with them. I told them I didn’t want to, but they insisted. I figured out pretty quickly that Ashraf controlled this neighbourhood.
Afterwards, Ashraf suggested we smoked some more shisha. We went down an alley and sat outside a tiny shisha cafe. Just the two of us. He sensed it, and asked what was wrong. I chalked up my nervousness to what had happened the night before. He asked if I would like a mint, and popped one in his mouth. I ate it. I tasted the bitterness of MDMA. I stood up and asked what he was trying to do to me.
“Relax, man. Just trying to get you to relax.” I stayed a few more minutes and told him I needed to go home. I spat out most of the pill, but fifteen minutes after ingesting, the urgency of an MDMA high appeared. I spent the night in my hotel room pacing around and smoking cigarettes.
The following day I met an English man named Tom; he was also staying at the hotel that Ashraf had made sure I went to. We went to see the pyramids together and he told me that Ashraf was helping him get a suit tailored. The next day we went to pay the first installment and check out the progress of the suit. Ashraf came with us. He was clearly on something. He was menacing, as always, and pocketed the money Tom had given him for the tailor.
When Ashraf demanded my mobile to “call his sick mother” we decided to get the hell out. He threatened me in broad daylight and demanded I give him my camera. He said he would tell the police I had been smuggling hashish from Lebanon. Tom backed me up, we walked away as quickly as possible and checked into another hotel.
We showed the manager a picture of Ashraf and told him that if he came by, he was not to let him in. We left before dawn the next morning for Sharm-el-Sheikh. Tom lent me the money for a ticket to London, and my adventure in Cairo came to a close.