The Friends of the Coptic Museum
Bob was at a talk by Robert Fisk at the British Council but I wanted to see the Museum and it was going to be open to all the guests, and with guides available.
I was way too early. I knew I would be but Bob had to be dropped in time for Fisk and it seemed logical to go straight on. It meant I had far too much time. Mahmoud drove a way I had never been before. Traffic was heavy on the mainland so he hopped over a bridge onto Rodda Island and drove parallel to the heavily banked up city traffic on the Island. It is a poorer area than the island Zamalek is built on which is actually called El Gezira which simply means The Island.
Unfortunately it meant that we arrived even earlier. I had my small notebook in my bag.
I had taken some notes as I sat in the back of the car. Then I took a whole lot more in the Museum courtyard, and even inside the Museum. I intended them for the base of a blog, put together with connecting bits filled in - but I think they are interesting just as they are.
So - here they are.
I watch a small girl, perhaps four years old, in a ankle length pure white skirt with deep frills in bright, very hot pink, net around the bottom. They stand out like the ruffles on a flamenco costume. She is obviously proud of her skirt but has been tempted by her brothers to join them in their game. They are climbing large piles of builders' rubble - mostly just dirt. As she climbs I watch in maternal horror as she plants her feet into the ruffles and strains against them. I know they are tearing. I can almost hear them ripping from the car. At one point she stands and tries to brush the dirt off that her knees have imprinted in the skirt. It is white and she is not very good at getting dirt off. In fact her hands are heavily encrusted and are making it worse. I know she has considered the fact that her mother will be horrified at the state of a skirt that is obviously new, but her brothers are ahead of her now and the lure of the dirt is just too much. She starts to climb again.
The Coptic Museum is in a glorious old house. At least, it looks like a glorious old house - it might have been recently purpose-built in that style but I would be surprised. I walk through into a large open courtyard, and it has two levels with shallow stairs dividing the levels. At one end of the lower side a trio is setting up. A French horn and a harp seem an unlikely pair, but sound beautiful together.
Tables are covered in white damask cloth which is covered in a richly buttery cream lace. They look bridal. Add wide shallow bowls of cream arum lilies and magnolias against dark and glossy leaves under a shimmer of babies breath. I put an elbow on my table and it drops enough to make me think it is collapsing. It is a heart-stopping moment. There must be a full five inches of difference between the level of the stone pavement on one side compared to the other. There are full sized date palms over our heads and the breeze is rippling the fronds, then moving wildly through them - adding their own sussuration to the ripple of soft sound from the harp.
Bob has just objected to my using that word on grounds that if he hasn't heard it others won't know it either. I think he is wrong - but just in case - it means 'a faint indistinct background sound like whispering, muttering or humming'. What better word describes the sound of wind in the fronds of a date palm as evening falls in Egypt?
The harp is tuned, and starts to play with a ripple of sound like water over stones. The harpist is a young dark woman, very beautiful, obviously Egyptian, and there is drama in the way her pale slim arm stretches across the width of the harp to pluck at the strings and her hair drops over her downturned face as she feels and dreams her way into the music, obviously not even attempting to see what she is doing. She looks like images I have seen of harpists on walls of tombs, though they are usually male. I have seen two different tombs with very similar images of harpists. Their eyes are closed, and in each case the archaeologist has described them as blind. I am now wondering if it is just that they close their eyes to play, like this young woman. The French horn and saxophone join in playing Ave Maria and it is one of those times when the hair stands up on my arms. There are still only a handful of people in the courtyard as some others who arrived have taken advantage of free tours through an empty museum. The players play as if they do it for their own pleasure - and perhaps they do.
A well dressed lady at the table next to me has a real Gucci bag. I have started to admire these with the sort of bewildered admiration because I would like one but can't imagine how anyone can deem a handbag worth THAT much money. To my total amazement she has just tipped all the contents of the large bowl of mixed nuts into her bag, closed it quickly, replaced the bowl and looked around to see if anyone saw her do it. My mouth is still open and I didn't look away fast enough. She registers, blinks, looks away and moves quickly to another table which has a full bowl of nuts.
A young man comes down the broad stone steps. He is serious and intent, talking into a black walkie talkie. He wears a black suit, black shirt in a deeper darker black, and a silk tie in wide diagonal stripes of hot pink and black, so it looks as if someone has put hatching lines across his chest with a bright pink Sharpie.
Another man walks in looking so similar. The stripes on his tie are softer pink, his shirt a touch closer to charcoal The men stop and stare at each other, so surprised. It is obviously not a uniform!
There is a real risk that by the time the other guest arrive I will have eaten every cashew in the nut bowl on this table.
There are bare trees outside - no leaves, but the branches carry huge fleshy scarlet flowers. Walking through Zamalek the other day one landed on my shoulder and I thought a schoolchild had hit me with a ball. I will call them flame trees though I know they are not. The sun is very low now and through the dark wood of the door from the courtyard where I wait is a window with two elegant columns set into its sides.Below the window a young flame tree is glowing as if the flowers are flames in the setting sun It casts a perfect crisp black shadow against the golden walls.
I decide to go into the Museum. I have left it a bit late as I know there is a lot to see, but I have realised that my time could be better spent than scribbling notes in my book and eating cashews.
I am upstairs now, and looking down at the courtyard through the meshrabiya. The dark lacy wood is beautiful, but fractures the view into thousands of pieces. A group of four policemen in black serge 'Winter' uniforms run past me, peering with urgency through the meshrabiya screens and making frustrated comments. They can obviously see no more clearly than the women of last century could through these grills, and they were also obviously supposed to be the 'upstairs security' for someone of importance about to arrive.
It is a near-perfect museum as each floor wraps around a courtyard, single room after single room. You move very easily from room to room, and by blocking some stairs and opening others they have managed to herd people exactly as they wish. The lift has been inserted as an afterthought - an attempt to help those not able to manage the many flights of stairs inside the building. they have made it elegant though - polished wood and elaborate cages of ironwork like the lovely old lifts of Victorian England that always look as if they should be hand-cranked.
I am back in the courtyard. The wind is reaching fingers down into the crowd and I am glad I wore a suit. I have just realised that my place at the previous table is long gone - perhaps that is why they urged me to go and see the museum before, not after when the crowds hit. The sky has turned pink and there is a wash of the softest mauve. One star is just appearing. On the dull old-gold of the plasterwork on the building there are long dark streaks that mean that there will be bats here at nightfall. I wonder what those streaks might look like on pure white damask cloths with a cream lace overlay. I would never have thought of putting together blue-mauve, pink and old gold - a warm, rich golden yellow ochre - but the colours are wonderful together.
A lady opposite at my 'new' table has her thinning reddish hair curled as tightly as a poodle. There are even odd tucked-in fake curls to thicken it a little - obvious because they are several shades darker than her own hair. It is hard not to stare as it is such a bizarre style. It is even harder to imagine the mind of a hairdresser who thought this would look good.
A young tech back behind the stage - who imagines himself out of sight - has just whirled the microphone around his head like a lasso. A group of them are huddled over the mixer board in one corner giggling like schoolboys.
The waiter was just beckoned - imperiously - by a lady at this table. I am here but no-one has spoken to me and my first half smile was met by the lady with one glance, and then she turned away. In Australia I cannot imagine that we could not greet a stranger who arrived at the table and I feel uncomfortable and awkward. She orders drinks. I have just raised my full glass of apple juice to my lips when the waiter asks me if I would like a drink. We both laugh at the same time. It felt as if I suddenly had a friend.
A Coptic priest walks past. They wear marvelous embroidered bonnets - black with crosses in brown and caramel cross stitch. He wears long full back robes that swirl majestically as he moves, and he is now bending to adjust the laptop and projector while speaking into a mobile phone. His arm is between the projector and the screen, so a small brilliant image of the Coptic Museum is projected on his sleeve complete with a bright purple background.
Black and white is 'in'. Leopard print is huge. My sister was right. It is everywhere in loose jackets, in tight dresses, and one woman even has leopard skin leggings. One outfit has four different prints of the same animal. Hot pink is popular but I was recently told by an Egyptian friend that that was from two years ago but people here still like it. I still haven't worked out if that was a catty comment. Blonde hair is layered and flipped up, and shimmers in multiple colours and multiple lengths in radically layered cuts. It is amazing how many women have blonde hair - and how few men.
It is later, the speeches are over and Bob has arrived to pick me up. I am a bit worried that he is quite casually dressed for this function but it is late and very dark and he doesn't really care.
We leave past the roman fortress ruins which are beautifully spotlit, arches within arches casting arched shadows in a complex curving and interlacing rhythm. Honeyed stone against velvet blackness. The shrill shrieks of bats split the night and frequently one emerges into the spotlight like a huge moth and exits with the panache of a diva.