Poet: You Cannot Go to Cairo

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

of Egypt

where ancient pharaohs reigned,

Cheops ruled,

Nefertitti seduced,

Anthony and Cleopatra passioned,

and Julius Caesar paused

before the Sphinx of enigmatic smile

belying all,

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.

Egyptian eyes,

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.

Oh, Cairo,

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

clip-clopping donkeys

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…