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January 1998

It’s my first foray overseas. I’m visiting my daughter, who’s living in Cairo in an apartment with a broken floor, which you enter via a grand marble staircase. We breakfast at a kosherie on a bowl of lentils, rice and noodles which we can flavour from two jugs, one chilli sauce, one garlic sauce – definitely not to be mistaken for jugs of water.

Then we enter the markets. People often murmur “Welcome” to us, and there are gentle comments “You are beautiful” directed at my daughter – although they may well be lascivious comments. I’m not a good judge. The markets are thick with people, horses, mules, trolleys, bikes and even cars. The road is deep in rubbish: there’s small fire burning some of it. Men dump plastic tarps on the ground and open them to reveal trousers, towels, underclothes, sox. Women walk past with impossible bundles on their heads. We dodge and bump and forge ahead, tunnelling a path through the crowd. Stalls cluster by categories – hair products, cushions, jewellery, mandarins and dates, round flatbread puffed into fragile domes. Men skin and fillet chickens, a bucket at their feet to catch gizzards and blood. Soldiers with guns sit on wooden chairs at the edge of the path. Sometimes my world is simplified to the strap of my daughter’s backpack which I grip to make sure I don’t lose her. 

We come to a less busy street and are waylaid by a man in a brown robe who ushers us through scaffolding into the Mausoleum of Qalaun. He draws us closer with a beckoning finger as he points out the octagonal dome with stained glass windows: the screens made of cedars of Lebanon; carved stucco; the name of the prophet in mother of pearl inlaid in marble in exquisite panels.

We pay him – my daughter haggles – and begin to climb the semi-ruined and propped up minaret to a rubbly rooftop. The spiral staircase, winds tightly around itself, my fear of heights wobbling into my legs and fighting with my desire to look out over Cairo. I complete the climb on all fours, emerging onto the minaret balcony contained by a rickety wooden fence, a drop directly down into the market.

I look out: minarets, domes, the citadel, the chunky square houses of ordinary Cairo. The city reverberates to the three o’clock call to prayer.