This was the view from my window.
I was riding a train. The light was draining from the sky and turning the dusty Egyptian landscape crimson when a hand in a black robe came from behind and thrust a bread roll, smelling of spicy meat, at me. It was followed by a torrent of Arabic, not one word of which I understood, but their meaning was clear. I was being urged to share a meal by a woman in the seat behind. ‘Shukrun,’ I smiled, dragging it out of my meagre cache of Egyptian words. ‘Thank you.’
Kindness to a stranger. It was so unexpected and touched something deep inside me. Yet I found Egypt overflowing with such gestures, and despite the riots that were currently well under way in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I was treated with warmth and mint tea wherever I went.
So why a rattling 10 hour train journey – instead of a fast and sanitised plane – from Cairo to Luxor? It was because I was hungry to see the country. I wanted to be a part of it, my feet firmly set on its Nile-irrigated soil. For hour after hour on the train I was mesmerised by its landscape scrolling past my window, its distant pink escarpments drifting in and out of view, as elusive as its ancient gods. But that wasn’t the reason I was here. My characters, Jessie and Monty, take the same train in 1932 and I needed to experience Egypt through their eyes.
Life on the other side of the window was endlessly fascinating. We stopped every few miles, sometimes for no apparent reason but other times at bustling towns whose presence was announced from afar by pencil-thin minarets that pierced the blue sky. Black-shrouded women gathered in chattering groups to wash their clothes in the canal that ran parallel to the rail track, while men wearing loose galabayas fished in it and boys swam and dive-bombed its murky waters. White herons strutted at its edge and palm trees leaned gracefully over it, offering shade. I wanted to jump out and join them.
During that strange and oddly changeless day, I caught sight of markets bursting with colourful fruits and level crossings with no gates where goats and children wandered at will. Rubbish heaps spilled into the canal like ugly scars outside each town and everywhere there were donkeys, always donkeys, pulling carts or carrying men and bundles on their backs, dwarfed by their loads, their spindly legs sticking out under them like lollipop sticks.
But above all it was the kindness that lodged in my mind. I want to make that extraordinary journey again, but this time I’ll take a bag of spicy meat rolls with me to share with a stranger.