No other country in the world has aroused such curiosity and fascination than the land of Egypt. They have all come: conquerors like Alexander and Napoleon, spies, archaeologists in search of hidden tombs, Victorian travelers, writers in search of inspiration, and in recent times tourists, bankers and arms dealers hungry for a last minute deal. Despite the poverty and the decline in tourism in the aftermath of the Luxor Massacre when a dozen of foreigners were gunned down by fundamentalist terrorists, Egypt's image as the cradle of civilization remains intact.
Autumn has in the past been the preferred time for Europeans and Americans to visit Egypt, when the days are crisp and sunny and the nights cool. But as I got out of the plane the humid and polluted air seemed oppressive and stifling. A large, sulfurous moon hung above me as I left the airport for the Windsor Hotel in downtown Cairo where I spent four nights.
The Nile passes Cairo like a snake in a garden. Along its banks are palm trees and tall modern buildings. In the daytime a purple-gray haze covers the city. Everywhere I went it was the same incessant traffic across bridges, the noise, the confusion. Though more than a thousand years old, the “Mother of Cities” is yet young in historic Egypt. There was a Dickensian quality about this place: the dense narrow lanes at the Khan el Khalili bazaar, the garish cinema posters, the rubbish and the stench of the busy streets, the jostling crowds, exhaust fumes, donkey carts, the vendors and fly-infested marketplace, the dramatic gap between rich and poor.
At sunset, I sailed on a felucca to the other side. In Zamalik, a wealthy suburb, I found traces of nineteenth-century European Cairo with its straight avenues and tall Parisian facades. An orange glow lights up the river. By night Cairo is as sultry as any of the Egyptian beauties staying at the luxury hotels, or sipping cocktails with their men in the promenade garden of the Marriot.
It was my second day in Cairo and my taxi driver was eager to show me around. Domes and minarets rose above the streets. I asked him if he knew the Al Rafai Mosque. “Of course,” he smiled. “You want to see the tombs of King Farouk and the Shah? No problem.”
When he discovered my Iranian origin he really opened up reminding me of the old ties between Egypt and Iran. “We liked the Shah,” he said turning a corner. “We felt sorry for him when the world closed its doors on him. Only Sadat, a brave man, stood by him. He forced open another door so that the Shah could die in peace here.” It was midday when I reached the side entrance of the Al Rifai Mosque.
With my heart in my mouth, I followed a young boy up the stony steps where a sleepy guardian asked me to remove my shoes. Inside, an athletic Iranian greeted me. He led me through a latticed wall with a small door. He asked me to follow him across the rows of Persian carpets that covered the grand prayer hall.
“It took eight years to gather the money to buy these carpets,” he said sadly. “They are a gift from the Iranian people.”
On my left a small wooden door carved in Mamluk style lay half-opened. For a moment I hesitated to enter. It was as if inside this marbled room lay something unexpected, supernatural, forbidden. In January 1979, the Shah of Iran had flown out of Tehran for the last time, taking his wife, Empress Farah, loyal retainers, and a handful of soil from his country. He reached the end of his road in Cairo after eighteen months of wandering in which he was shunted from country to country in search of a refuge.
At the foot of the imperial flag lay a simple slab of alabaster. Engraved in the pale-green stone beneath the royal insignia in Farsi: Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah of Iran. I sat quietly in a small niche beside the low tomb.
Even now the Shah evoked and provoked intense emotion. The Shah's death on July 27th, 1980 along the Nile had marked the end of a whole era in my country's turbulent history, an era of high hopes and broken dreams, and the start of a new age of revolution, war and exile.
I left the mosque from another door and into the October sunshine. For the next three days I became a tourist again riding to the Pyramids and relaxing beside the pool at the Mena House. When I got bored I explored the Pharaonic treasures of the Egyptian Museum, snapped pictures of the sand-colored Ibn Talun Mosque and toured the house of an eccentric Englishman by the name of Gayer Anderson. It was a curious place with overhanging mushrabia balconies and shutters, a Persian bedroom, hidden doorways, a private courtyard, delicately carved wooden doors and a spectacular flat roof.
Before leaving Cairo I decided to pay one final visit to the Al Rifai Mosque only to find that the Shah's tomb had been sprinkled with rose water and lit with four lustre candles. Around me stood large bouquets of yellow carnations and jasmine. I blinked at a portrait in a gold frame: a saluting monarch in a white, braided uniform, his chest covered in medals.
A group of tourists stood admiring the Tabriz carpet in the middle of the room as the boys responsible for cleaning the mausoleum offered them dates and Persian sweets. When they had left I spent a few minutes talking to an Egyptian woman responsible for the mausoleum's restoration works.
Later a number of Iranians arrived: a cinema owner, a former volleyball coach, a property manager, and a middle-aged journalist with his attractive wife who had been a television presenter before the revolution. She arrived barefoot and dressed in black. She crossed the marbled floor and sat beside the tomb, weeping uncontrollably. “I don't come here only to mourn the Shah,” she said, drying her face. “I'm an exile. This is the only place left for me. It symbolizes a country that no longer exists.”
As the sound of the muezzin filled the corridors and hallways I felt a serenity and peace that I had not felt for a very long time. I knelt beside a giant Koran and lit a candle. A faint scent of orange blossoms filled the air reminding me of our garden in Shiraz. On the long flight back to London I reflected on my visit to Cairo and wondered whether a day would come when the Shah's remains would be allowed to rest in Iran.