I arrive to Mut at 5pm. The town was still drowning in the lethargy of the intense heat; most of the shops were closed. I sip a tea at a coffee shop near the bus stop, a couple of other patrons were sitting dazed in the shade, none seemed interested in this stranger suddenly in their midst. I walk off searching for a hotel. An old man with an unbelievably creased face points out the ‘Mut rest house’, “the rooms there are five pounds”, he reassures me, “just beyond it you’ll find ‘Al-Forsan’ hotel, but it’s very expensive, they charge twenty-five pounds for the room”. Notwithstanding the old-man’s retort, I head to Al-Forsan, somewhat surprised at how cheap it is. Checking in was immediate; I throw my bags on one of the beds, peel my wet clothes of my flea-bitten skin and lie naked on the bed under the noisy ceiling fan, and I couldn’t help thinking, “what have I done?”
Back in the fifties when the modern political entity that is Egypt gained its independence from combined British/Monarchic rule, the army assumed control of the country, and consistent with the burgeoning nationalism that was to plight our nation for the foreseeable future and the paranoia that nationalism inevitably engenders, military airports were constructed outside most Egyptian towns. Asyut airport is one of them. The first leg of my journey to Dakhla was an hour’s flight from Cairo to Asyut. It’s not really an airport, rather a landing strip and a small building that houses the military intelligence office. As I took my first step outside the building I was accosted by an Asyuti man offering his limousine services to any destination I desire. As expected he was annoyingly savvy and obviously disingenuous, littering his non-stop barrage of words with statements like, “we just want to serve you ya Basha”. In any case I expected this to be the last encounter with the sweet-talking Nile-dwelling Egyptians who usually want to charge you as much as they can, while making you feel – all the time – that they are doing you a service. The people of the Western desert are famous for their down-to-earth nature, their directness and honesty, and that was where I was heading.
Between my present spot and Dakhla, however, lay 450 km of scorching heat and cracked asphalt: the famous darb-al-arba’een road. Up till the late 1800s, so the story goes, this desert track was a major caravan trade route connecting Darfur in Southern Sudan with Kharga Oasis and beyond to the Nile-valley. Today it’s frequented by the dilapidated buses of the ‘Upper Egypt Transport Company’, and the occasional private vehicle. The journey was hell. I was reassured, initially, when I read on the information board at the bus station that the service is air-conditioned. It turns out the A/C is switched on the first and last half hours of the journey (to save fuel?). This meant suffocating heat in the midst of fleas and the occasional whiff of smelly feet and other more problematic aromas. Adding to the general feeling of torture a young child vomited in the corridor of the bus in the first half hour, and we had to live with that for the next five. To add pain to insult, my fellow commuters were reluctant to open the windows, under the excuse that dust and sand may enter the bus.