There are several ways to get a ticket on a train in Egypt. You can buy one in advance at the train station, you can book one online using the train website or you can enter the train and buy a ticket halfway through your journey.
Every method has its advantages and disadvantages. Buying in advance is great except that they only sell first class tickets to foreigners the guidebooks warn. Booking is perfect as on the internet no one knows your nationality. The only problem comes in when it holiday time. They have amazing holidays here, religious days that dwarf our most elaborately extended Easter weekends. One of these is known in English as the holiday of the sacrifice. It celebrates the anniversary of Ibrahim having enough faith in god to sacrifice Isaac. Because of the sudden appearance of a ram thousands of years ago there is now a four day holiday, stretching the weekend from 2 days to 6, meaning you come back to work on a day before going back to the next weekend. This is a travelling holiday, book a ticket weeks in advance if you want one,otherwise get on the train and buy one.
We were leaving for a few days in Luxor and Aswan, tourist destinations places to see ancient temples and tombs, valleys of kings and their sarcophagi, colossal statues and ancient graffiti. I decided to go with my flatmates on the day of, they didn't have train tickets either and the romanticism of getting on a train and going to a place 12 hours away without a ticket was intriguing to me. We left the house and got to the train station early, the train system in Egypt is embarrassingly punctual, it stands in stark contrast to everything else in the country, we got on the train at ten t midnight. The spaces between the coaches were already occupied. The line of space where the restaurant was located was already filling up but the seats were empty. Being hopelessly optimistic we got on the seats and sat down for a while. There is something about knowing that you could be asked to vacate your seat at any moment that makes you wary. Every person passing by could be the one who asks you to stand. Every stranger making eye contact could spell doom to your carefully arranged albeit stolen comfort. Every hale greeting feels like a prelude to a hurty awakening.
We left Cairo train station with no problem we got to Giza and in a matter of minutes we were all standing and shivering. This is when things began to make sense, the jigsaw began to take shape. My minds eye saw the dark silhouettes huddling in the spaces between the coaches, hugging their knees and already shivering, it made sense of the the fact that all the tickets were already booked, it remembered that al the tickets had been booked on this eid and this meant I was going to stand for the next few hours. By the time we had been asked to stand up things had coalesced and people had crystallised into shape in various places, the chairs near the ends of the coach have a space between them and this space had already being taken in every coach. The best bet is the line of space in the compartment that holds the kitchen but this was the worst time for that bet. Finally the girls found a place to stand, the Greek and I had to stand in the smoking section, the smoking section was the place between the two carriages, close to it is the connecting axle. This is a noisy nearly unsafe part of the train, it swings back and forth as the train moves and if you look down you see the rails replacing each other with swift immediacy. The wind blows in at every opportunity ad the train sways unable to stay in place.
“you and I are going to have to have a very long conversation” he said.
It was cold and cramped, tight and terrible, smoky and suffocating. Everyone in Egypt smokes, those who don't inhale enough second hand smoke to kill a lung. A train with compartments built to fit fifty and actually holding nearly double that number where the only smoking zone is this tiny rooms , the hall outside the t toilet and the metal above the axe will have people coming and going, lighting up and putting out cigarettes at all hours of the night. Smokers a re friendly no matter what anyone says. They start to smoke and see that your hands are empty and your mouth suspiciously lazy. They think about all the times they have heard that second hand smoke is actually worse than first hand smoke and they move to remedy this situation. They take out an extra cigarette and hold it out to you. They put it in your hand and your refusal is met with something akin to anger “don't you know am only trying to save your life?” their bewildered expression at your refusal seems to say.
In spaces that cosy conversations sprout wings and take flight, the near dark of a 2 by .5 room in which seven strangers are packed together lends itself to conversation. Luckily there was one Arab there who could speak English, we took advantage of this train ride to quiz him on Egypt and his life and he took advantage to find out all he could about the differences between British and American English, “prison and jail? What's the difference, which one is American?” he would suddenly say when there was a lull in the conversation concerning the most important aspect of marriage, the money, the feeling of readiness or the girl. He served a as translator for the other people. He mumbled something once and I couldn't quite make it out. He repeated it in Arabic
“allamdullilah.[peace be upon you.].”
“oh I said,” finally understanding, “shalom?”
“no, no, no, don't say that here. We use that as a joke.”
this provided another glimpse into the feelings that Egypt has towards their neighbours the Israelis. Here among most citizens there is no question of the rightness of the Palestinian cause and the corresponding failing morality of the Israelis, I as tempted to play devil's advocate but I couldn't courage failing me in this place so far away from home.
Then the waiter came by with a tray filled with glasses. The glasses were filled with water, the water was filled with heat. There are very few mugs in Egypt is one thing you realise after a while. Tea is drank from glasses, the rims of the glasses are held carefully as its possible to come away with a contact burn. A tray was stacked with these glasses, dozens, OK maybe 2 dozen. The smoke could be seen steaming off them and the trays swayed this way and that, the rocking of a boat that you are assured will never spill its contents but there's a reason for seasickness, every once in a while the world gives us an opportunity to use that harsh word capsize. So every time the waiter would pass y holding the tray aloft and pass through our little section completely confident in his capabilities, every time he would have to stop because there were people littering his path, three by the door, two asleep, one sleeping for 2 minute snatcher before he was woken up because the door had to be opened, every time the waiter spent more time in this cramped little place we had carved out for ourselves and had to kick someone awake in order to pass, the whole time the train snaking through Egypt I held my breath. “kids and children, which one is American?”
Four hours later I was still on my feet. My ankles ached and hurt, my eyes drooped and shrunk, my words slurred and slowed. I was exhausted. Tired of standing, tired of talking, tired of cigarettes, tired of telling myself over and over again that this was an experience worth having. Comfort is an experience worth having! Desperation began to assault my brain, climbing over the walls of the fort I had built, replacing rational thought as the master of the castle. Just let go. Was my first thought. My eyes close, my heart slowed and I was... jerked awake by the swaying of the train. With an envy green enough to stop global warming I coolly regarded the lucky people. At this point the lucky people weren't even the ones with seats, I didn't think of them, their heaven being too inaccessible to my present state, the lucky people were the ones stacked in spaces between seats, in nooks next to walls, in crannies near corners, curled up into balls with no barrier between them and the metal below. All I wanted was this space. I roamed the train hungrily looking for a place to sit for a while. I would enter a coach and see someone sitting in an impossible space and my brain would light up sincerely with flattery. I would ran to the next compartment and look for a similar position ad find it had already been taken by two. “who pronounces the r's, ameircans? British?”
At this point conversation had lost its lather but it was ll I had. I was dragged by my translator to have a conversation with one of his cousins who was always willing to learn about other religions. All I could think was that I needed a seat, he asked me to explain the difference between protestants and Catholics. My mind clutched at strands, shall I tell him that dogmatically the Nicene creed holds all we have similar and the main difference is the veneration of Mary and the institution of sainthood? Should I give a historical answer that takes into account the triad of the corruption of the church in medieval times, the appearance of a printing press and greater literacy and the charisma of one martin Luther? And how well will this all translate into Arabic? This I could do while fully awake, this is how my mid should have worked, the proper train of thought but I was tired and my thoughts were more like the creed is a good prayer explains everything, I need to sleep.. I wonder if there is space over there... martin Luther, not king he did stuff... there looks to be space over there... people can read... I read before I sleep, I need to go check out that space, will he understand my Arabic? Instead of being given leave I was asked harder and harder questions. Will Abraham go to heaven though he didn't know Jesus? In the bible it says Jesus died but I can't accept that Allah died, if god was dead what was there? Nothing tell me that. A question that needed an explanation of the trinity and me without my shamrock leaf! I muttered some ncomprehensibles. Gave the best explanation I could thinking if Christianity had me as its last defence we would have gone over to the Greek side of things a long time ago.
Time dragged on ever more slowly. Cigarettes were foisted on me at every opportunity with an insistence I found increasingly hard to turn down, attempts were made to sleep in the toilet and finally as a reward for taking about God I was allowed a seat by my inquisitor. My eyes closed for a flutter before he asked me to give it back, ninety minutes having passed I did just this. My mouth was too dry to talk now. The sun had began to peek into the train having been told by the moon of the exhaustion etched on the faces of the occupants. Now I swayed back and forth actively avoiding conversation, looking to hibernate. Finally people began to leave and a seat was vacated next to me. I sat in closed my eyes and...