Gretchen Allen is a poet who lives in Cayman.
More than 25 years ago, she spent some time in Cairo.
“I found Cairo to be the most exotic, most chaotic place I had ever experienced,” she says.
She was in Egypt doing editorial work for a publisher of United Nations’ documentation.
“I shot more photographs in Cairo than I had ever shot anywhere else (unfortunately all my photo archives from around the world were lost in Ivan),” she says.
What wasn’t lost in Cairo was one of her poems, You Cannot Go To Cairo.
You Cannot Go to Cairo
by Gretchen Allen
The Arab stallion’s fleet hooves fly
like wind ’cross golden desert sands
in wave and wave of endless time
and shadow of ever shifting dune
the pyramids, the three,
stand sentry in the distance.
“Man fears time,”
they there say,
“but time fears the pyramids.”
These horse-hoove pounded sands,
these camel-trodden shapes,
these wind-swept, century sands
where ancient pharaohs reigned,
Anthony and Cleopatra passioned,
and Julius Caesar paused
before the Sphinx of enigmatic smile
where the troops of Napoleon trod,
these flying horse hooves across time,
across the desert,
wind whistling past horse and rider’s ears,
tears streaming from eyes’ outer corners,
this place without time,
this indelible experience which sears
the Desert in one’s soul for always.
Beyond this silent timeless place,
a world apart,
a dune away,
15 million people populate
the Chaos of Cairo
on the banks of the Nile
still flowing and all is a-bustle
and the traffic all a-snarl
and the music of the city
is the sound of claxons beeping
in the streets all swept
with stick brooms to keep the dust all moving
and the man in wind-swept robe
swaddled in Arab garb
transacts the daily business
between the wailing of the faithful,
while the white horse gallops
through the desert,
mindless and sure,
centuries-old Arabian blood
pulsing through pounding heart
and nostrils flared
to suck clean desert air
and the pyramids still in distant silence.
Felucca sails billow with breeze,
cauliflower carriages trot into town,
heaps of rugs in Persian profusion,
images of Egypt; ibises aloft,
legless beggars skateboard by,
minarets beckon as lentils simmer,
flat bread bakes,
bean balls fritter,
the acrid odor of old urine
emanates from alleyway.
an upside-down bicycle
pedaled by hand
by a man with but one leg,
the odor of garlic
and smiling black teeth.
Beggars wrapped in blankets
embanked along the bridge,
while taxis wait and horse carts stand,
coxswains shout cadence,
and sparrows flit between Islamic ornamentation
adorning myriad mosque windows,
men smoke Turkish cigarettes
and the Nile flows north
and the horse in the desert heeds none of it
but the heritage in his hormones
as a mare nearby whinnies.
The dogs belonging to no one
sleep on the sand in the sun
and the bones of (what?)
bleach in unforgiving desert sun
beneath the unblinking countenance
of the Sphinx.
Women line their eyes with kohl
and men perfume their bodies.
You cannot go to Cairo…
and come back unchanged.
The garbage heaped upon the ditch
that lines the street
and obscures the open sewer
and men in marble cold halls
sit beneath framed portraits of Mubarek
and the morning sun struggles impotently
to penetrate the shroud of pollution
which embraces the populace
and full-bodied women
with overdressed children
hold their silence to ample bosoms.
you wanton, wicked, wasted, wondrous
City on the Nile,
so this is love so tortuous,
so tempting, too true.
Nile palms like feather dusters
and Nubian nights ‘neath moonlight,
soft camel plodding steps
beneath half-lidded eyes,
black-veiled faces and
smacked with sticks
on bony small hips,
full-painted lips and
beer in big bottles
to quench the desert
and drown the dust from the eyes.
Brown-skinned men with black moustaches,
turban-headed and sandal-footed,
in all enveloping dresses
pass naked sheep carcasses
which hang by their feet
next to the shoe shop windows
of glittering footloose fantasies
which stepped straight out of
Arabian Nights Midsummer Dream
in billowing Bedouin tents
between sips of sweet tea
and soft pillows to cushion round rumps
and the boy with the dog
on the mud bank of the Nile
breaks bread from a circle
and wolfs it down dry
as tourists boat by.
You cannot go to Cairo…