I’m not often irritated by young children, but when my friend’s five-year-old kept on coming up close to look at my face and repeat ‘blood’, I thought he was just trying out a new word and brushed him off, a trifle impatiently. But though the tiny spot on my nose continued bleeding, I had a lot to do and was certain it would eventually heal. When a few weeks later it was still there, I thought a doctor ought to see it.
Enter Mahmoud, a skin specialist. I saw him first in his office at our local hospital. He spoke clearly but with an accent, so I asked him where he came from.
‘Egypt,’ he replied.
‘Don’t they need your expertise there more than in England?’
‘Yes, but people are a lot nicer here,’ was the unexpected response that has remained with me long afterwards. I have only visited Egypt once, leaving with memories of pyramids, camels, bazaars, dusty, cluttered museums but certainly not of hostile, unfriendly Egyptians. However, our group didn’t have the opportunity to meet or talk to many besides our guide, Leila. She intrigued me by managing to lead her flock, all in sturdy walking shoes as recommended, while picking her way in very slender high heels over uneven slabs and paving stones. There were warders in the museums and street vendors galore – women and children sitting along both sides of the street mostly selling bananas – but they only spoke a few words in English.
Leila intrigued us. She first refused to let us climb up a narrow shaft to the top of a pyramid. In the end she relented, but only allowed us into a minor pyramid ignored by the other tourist groups. She waited for us, anxiously walking back and forth by the entrance, and was visibly relieved when we all returned. Succumbing to our relentless questioning, she did explain why she was afraid. The shafts were not made for humans to climb or descend on all fours, but for coffins. One fateful day – not ours – a stout tourist had a stroke and died in the pyramid, blocking the passage and planting a seed of terror in every tour guide’s heart.
Sadly, there was no opportunity to talk to the street vendors – mostly women and children surrounded by bananas and trinkets sitting along the sides of the streets. They knew few English words. Carpet, clothes and textile traders lured wandering tourists into the innumerable, intricate alleys of the bazaar with insistent but limited sales talk in English. Leila was anxious. She could easily lose us and so restricted our movements with severe orders to stick to the main artery and to return to her at one end of it after an hour. The vendors stuck to you like flies, buzzing around as you moved on to see what else was on offer, and to bargain. Some carpet, clothes or textile vendors did try everything, short of taking your arm, to lure you towards their stall, but gave way if you were firm enough and moved on. Look, think, ask the price and continue to see what else is available, often followed by a child runner from one of the stalls you have left, pleading, insisting, long-lashed eyes imploring. We explored sites, learnt about history and culture, but were always outsiders, only meeting people within the limited language of barter and purchase.
Inside the operation theatre, Mahmoud mentioned the usual wasp sting and suddenly lurched towards me, to plunge a needle into my cheek. Numbness spread over the left side of my face and shoulder. With the two nurses still bolstering my right side, Mahmoud began work on the offending spot. Afterwards, a nurse accompanied me back to the waiting room, offered me tea or coffee and a biscuit and sat down beside me. She too was an incomer from the Philippines. She had to leave her two children with her mother and find work, first in the USA and now here, in a provincial English hospital. She sent money home and missed her family but, she assured me, she liked her work, enjoyed herself in her free time and had made friends. Like Mahmoud, she found people were friendly, and stayed.