Surreal Times: Driving through India as Egypt Unravels
Divorced from the Middle East by just a few months, the news from Egypt is conspiring to steal me back there. The repetitive mediocrity of 24/7 news draws me into the churning shots of protestors relieving themselves of their inspired anger, affirming their secular motives with fists or prostrating themselves low in a collective, but defiant act of prayer.
Prayers seem theirs to make, as the daily news shows the world’s tenth largest army simultaneously vowing not to open fire, but sending fighter jets low to menace the committed crowd standing in the now-deeply-familiar Tahreer Square.
Prayers seem theirs to make as Western governments and media become frenzied with excitement at their concerns, or fears, at the prospect of a government which may – or may not – support their own preferences, and the threat of meddling- the legacy of today’s Middle Eastern borders- looms large, yet again.
Benevolent meddling, malevolent meddling.
Interference is not our right, the right of outsiders, although support for a population in uproar clearly must be our duty. For we have supported a dictatorship pretending that we – and he – knows better. We have ousted his neighbours under cries of democracy, and paid him fat sums of cash even as he, just gently enough for us to avert our eyes, forces his population to suck his thumb. We give his family British passports but deny the activists asylum. We pay his neighbours grotesque sums of money to keep a peace treaty alive. We know democracy is best, we repeat in our richly curtained living rooms, but we also know which kind of democracy is best. Will this fight belong to the Iranians or their history, or will this fight be won by the Israelis and their present? Little Lebanon hums in its own corner, whilst Egyptian men and women are charged by the President’s men on camels and horses. Yemen and Jordan demand the emperor change his clothes. A democracy by any other election is still a democracy, speaks Western wisdom. Or was that Shakespeare? And a dictator whose name is self-congratulatory- in the language of the East – is congratulated and reinforced as a stable power and force for good in the language of the West. Tony Blair, that visionary sage for peace, is warning of impending chaos and worse to come. Yes, prayers seem theirs to make as the newsreels unfold, governments start to speak and the rest of us watch haplessly on. Blair is speaking and we are still trying to decipher Obama. Yes, prayers seem theirs to make.
And in that vortex of suspension and history, I am watching this unfold in a different time zone and an altogether different self-congratulatory democracy. It is sometime after midnight in New Delhi and Sufi songs are rising through the dark fog around Humayan’s tomb. I listen to the chanting appreciation of God, Allah or it could be Nanak as images of Egyptian crowds whirling like dervishes form on the pixels in front of me. I am tempted to go out, to reclaim the music and streets as my own in this hauntingly romantic but dangerous city, a city where the many Gods seem unable to protect the women. A city whose architecture, food and sometime morals may have been displaced from a city once created on a road somewhere between Tehran and Kabul. Silk spun by spiders. History spun by words. In a crazed, confused city where adoration of a fourteenth century Sufi saint, Hazrat Nizammuddin, rises in sonorous cadences through the fog, I am seeing Egypt and sensing the core of Delhi come alive, but the streets are neither safe in Cairo nor Delhi and the leery bidi-smoking rickshaw-wallah may loot my soul. So I don’t step out, and I lose the night to images of Cairo and sounds of Delhi. A linking road that traces back centuries. Ancient civilisations connected by tweet.
And in the dawn light, as plans have predicted, I am driving away, away from televisions, internet, phone coverage and urban steel. The mountains have lured me, and the world is continuing, as the world is wont to do, even as the axis still spins. Buttery flatbreads by the road – not so unlike those served in Tehran, Istanbul or Kabul, little sweet cups of tea served everywhere – but here they have milk – I am crossing into India’s own troubled heartland in Uttar Pradesh, where women dressed in black burkhas sit on bullock carts as their turban-wearing drivers dodge the colourful, hooting trucks that screech like tortured devils or chalk on blackboards, all the way from here to Kabul and beyond. We are all connected when our brains engage.
I drive on roads that jar my spine and sit behind trucks that pierce my skull with their bedevilled honking. Just as the sun is setting over India’s north, a pair of enormous red-tipped Cyrus cranes fly like hopping emus over mustard fields, and a herd of deer the size of horses crash across the baboons, making us swerve, brake and then drive on. Momentum can be unstoppable.
I am driving away from the urban steel towards mountains, trees, rivers and hairpin bends in the road. I am losing phone reception, losing connection, I am gripping my seat unsure whether the next turn may see us thundering down in the valley, for it has been ten hours of driving and dark has layered these jagged slopes. The night skies have arrived by the time I have left Delhi, and there are leopard-markings on the trees outside my room where I hang desperately onto branches hoping for a sliver of news, of news from Cairo, Delhi, London, somewhere.
The peace is shattering and I dare not recognise the night’s sharp noises in this land of big cats. Not far from the Corbett tiger reserve, the woodfire throws unfamiliar shapes and shadows onto this beautiful white cottage which lovingly bears two blackened chimneys. I curl up with a book under layers of dark red quilts, large windows replacing a stone wall. Leaves shiver in the mountain cold, and branches bristle with patience.The chai is steaming, heating me up with its milk and ginger. The scent of cinnamon and cardamom soothes my itching, wired brain. I cannot effect the events in Cairo, but I can send them peace, support and energy from my own twitching soul. Momentum is, after all, the rising shape of hope.
And when I wake up, there is warm, winter sunshine and hazy blue skies. Himalayan bulbuls chatter and flutter. There is no internet and no phone connection, but there is fresh fruit and coffee under the spread of a neem tree and the mountain tops remind me of Lebanon or even Sicily. There is as much peace and quiet as India can offer, for the horns are still trembling somewhere on the crumbled roads below.
Old habits die hard. I hang back out of the jacaranda tree, hoping to catch a glimpse of media. Mubarak is still hanging on, his grip tighter than that local leopard.
February 3rd 2011,