It was the summer of 2008 and my first time flying on my own.
I was twelve years old and rapidly entering a mysterious hipster phase. My curly hair had been straightened by some sorry hairstylist a day earlier and it fell down to my waist, getting in my and everyone else’s way every time I moved. I tried walking as stiffly as possible.
It was the summer of 2008 and I was wearing skinny black jeans, a gigantic black oversized shirt and new leather boots, all of which my mother asked me not to wear; I was still mad at her for not letting me dye my hair a regrettable shade of blonde. While she walked me to the gate she managed to eye me now and again, both gloatingly and sympathetically, as sweat trickled down my temples.
I pretended not to notice.
Once I got onto the plane I pointed the icy swirl of the air conditioning at my face and slept. I was trying to cool my body down as much as possible, before I’d have to step into the Luxor heat and admit to the mistake I had made in choosing my outfit.
I was a stubborn kid, arguably.
My dad usually picks me up from the airfield in one of those whimsical golf carts. In 2008, waving a General’s badge could get him beyond any security check and, additionally, a golf cart to whisk his half-German child away in. My passport control is always carried out in a back office by some General friend of my father’s. I hadn’t waited in line for a regular Egyptian passport control until 2012, when some fool even asked me for a visa. Luckily, my dad waited behind the passport booth and immediately whisked me away, while shooting a dismissive glance at the passport officer.
That day, no one was waiting on the airfield. I stepped out of the plane and breathed in the hot air, glancing around for a golf cart. The sand tickled my lungs and made me cough. A couple of seconds later, I started sweating excessively. I rolled up my sleeves in a feeble attempt to limit the damage.
The other passengers started hurrying towards the buses, shoving each other to get the best seats, complaining about the heat and sand all the while. Apparently, no one had told them that Egyptian shuttle buses rarely have more than one seat, and that’s where the driver’s sitting.
“Aren’t you getting on the bus?” One of the flight attendants had leaned down to me, one arm pointing towards the puffing and roaring vehicles suggestively.
“Oh, no. I’m waiting for my dad.” I smiled reassuringly, as an expression of gentle concern crossed her face.
“I’m sure he’s waiting inside?”
“No, he usually picks me up here. He’s driving a golf cart.” I continued scanning the area, oblivious to the confused look on her face.
Finally, I heard the buzz of the cart. However, the man driving it was definitely too lean to be my dad, who has the physique of a chubby person but somehow moves with a sort of natural athleticism.
The man was wearing black dress pants and a long-sleeved shirt. I couldn’t see one droplet of sweat on the white fabric.
“Hi Sina! I’m here to pick you up. Your dad’s in the hospital in Cairo, he’s got some kind of food poisoning and couldn’t fly down here. I’m Uncle Ahmed. Hop in?” At times, his Arabic was interlaced with the heavy accent from the South.
“Hello, Uncle Ahmed. Is he really sick?” I flung my backpack on the passenger seat and climbed in next to him.
By then, the Air Hostess had a horrified expression on her face. She leaped in the way of the cart and waved at an Egyptian colleague to come and take over.
Uncle Ahmad held up his Air Berlin ID card, swiftly followed by his Police badge. He went on to explain the situation in English, stumbled across the word poisoning and replaced any terms he wasn’t familiar with with their Arabic counterparts. Somehow, he managed to convince both women to let us drive off.
While we rolled over the airfield at the moderate speed a golf cart is capable of, Uncle Ahmed filled me in about what had happened to my dad. He used his hands a lot, which sometimes kept him from steering properly, but he just swivelled back onto our original route after his gestures had taken us too far to the left or to the right or in the way of a big Egypt Air machine, which didn’t seem to concern him one bit.
Essentially, he would put me on the next flight to Cairo, where my Dad’s driver would pick me up and drop me off at the hospital.
We entered the Arrivals building through a back door and stood in an office that had been cooled down to about 16 degrees by a roaring air conditioner. Usually, I dreaded these types of temperature shifts; that day, I breathed a sigh of relief. Uncle Ahmed introduced me to a group of young soldiers lounging on the leather sofas and chairs. They got up and saluted lazily and I suppressed the urge to salute back, allowing my hand to only move up to my chest to give them a slightly awkward wave.
One of them offered me a couple of their sandwiches, which I devoured with inappropriate speed, while Uncle Ahmed went over to a bulky desk and performed my passport check himself.
He then gestured at me to follow him and led the way through the door into the bustling Arrivals hall. We squeezed through the sweaty masses of arriving tourists at a dizzying pace. Uncle Ahmed made sure to smile at everyone widely before gently shoving them out of the way while shouting “Sorry” in every language he knew.
He had just instructed me to wait at the luggage belt and disappeared into the mysterious opening that usually spat out the luggage in regular intervals, when my phone rang. I flipped it open and the voice of my grandma blasted through the line. She wanted to check in on me as my mother was working and she felt it was her obligation to see if I had landed safely.
I told her about the food poisoning and how Uncle Ahmed was going to put me on a plane to Cairo and how I had just had sandwiches.
‘Who is Uncle Ahmed?’ I heard her ask, before I accidentally ended the call with my ear and the phone died. I flipped it shut.
A minute later, Uncle Ahmed fought his way back through the heavy rubber bands, my suitcase in one hand.
It was my first time flying First Class. In one hand, I was holding a plastic cup with orange juice while I was trying to open the wrapper of a complementary cookie with the other.
My neighbour picked the cookie from my hand and opened it for me.
He was extremely tall, which was probably why Uncle Ahmed had put us in First Class. His long limbs wouldn’t have fit in any other seating situation. His name was Abdullah and he was supposed to accompany me to Cairo. He talked about his job and football a lot and called me “Miss Sina”, which I thought was very charming and he was wearing the white summer uniform of the police, which the flight attendant thought was very charming.
She wafted past again and again, handing us steamed towels, sandwiches and fresh fruit. At first I thought all this attention came with sitting First Class; when she asked whether we needed sleep masks for the second time.
It was midday.
Abdullah started talking about his fiancée a lot.
The driver had bought me a massive lunch before picking me up from the airport. He was smoking cigarettes out of the window and I was sitting in the back between empty wrappers, tiny chicken and kofta sandwiches piling in my lap. I balanced a sauce container on my right knee. We had known each other for some years now, and after the usual chit chat he had let me drift off into my own thoughts in peace while he softly sang along to old songs on the radio. Years earlier, I had thought his nasal voice funny. His name was Samir but when he said it, it sounded something like “Sameeen”, which used to crack me up. He’d introduce himself over and over again to make me laugh.
That day, his quiet out-of-tune singing sounded comforting.
The hospital smelled differently from what I was used to. The sand had gotten through the cracks and crannies over the years and at some point no one had bothered to sweep it up anymore. It smelled like dust and roasted meat and exhaust gas, as if I were still outside. Samir led the way, pulling my suitcase over the sticky linoleum floor.
My dad’s room was on the top floor. The night jasmine had already started blooming, its heavy scent wafted in through the windows.
My dad looked extremely healthy, which was probably due to the fact that he is unable to pale. The only thing indicating he was sick was the fact that he was not eating. Samir patted my head, saluted and closed the door behind him.
I laid down on the bed and finished my last sandwich.
‘So your phone died’ He said, raised his eyebrows and held up his. I counted 18 calls from a German number.
“After calling me, your grandma has called the Police because she thought I’d lost you somewhere. So technically she’s called me again, which is ironic. I had to stop her from swimming over here to save you.”
We both smiled at the thought of her ploughing through the waves to get me.
“Your outfit is way too heavy by the way,” he added.
I leaned my sweaty forehead against his arm.
By Sina El