Magazine article New Internationalist

Handle with Care

Magazine article New Internationalist

Handle with Care

Article excerpt

Exhausted with Cairo, I prescribed myself three months in Prague to complete a demanding writing assignment. No-one understood why I had to travel with 35 kilos of books. 'Can't you get them on the internet?' friends asked. Not these, I told them; besides, 1 scribble in the margins, underline, highlight and pepper the books with Post-it notes. I remember passages by their position in the beginning, middle or end and flitting through the pages helps me think. In short, the book's physicality serves memory and inspiration.

On my return to Cairo I went to the airport to retrieve the bags from a place called 'Cargo Village'. I had to show my ID at the entry gate, where the veiled woman in charge checked my purse to make sure it contained no camera I could understand why they didn't want pictures. The entrance was littered with house-sized canvas bags split at the seams and leaking their innards. Observing the orphaned crates stranded amidst parked cars, the battered forklifts and men in their makeshift uniforms scurrying about, shouting and waving papers, I tried, unsuccessfully, not to worry.

My air-freight company was a wooden hut with ancient PCs and counters whose laminated tops had been picked to splinters by nervous or idle hands. I was introduced to a gentleman with beautiful teeth and a threadbare corduroy jacket who would usher me through the intricate process of redeeming the bags. 'Nothing new?" he repeatedly asked, referring to their contents. Just old things, I reassured him. In the course of the next three hours we walked from one end of Cargo Village to the other, standing in line before the sign-less windows of a dozen ramshackle huts where stamps and permissions were issued. Eventually we entered a warehouse abuzz with forklifts and shouting labourers, stacked ceiling-high with boxes, and somewhere, please god, my bags.

The centre was apparently a clearing area, flanked by the desks of bored, down-at-heel bureaucrats, and littered with portions of boxes and crates, the plastic bands used to wrap them and massive chunks of Styrofoam. I watched several big boxes being gleefully ripped apart by the old labourers as if they were Christmas presents. The bureaucrats looked on: one picked his nose, another spoke loudly on the phone, a third hollered at one of the forklift drivers. …

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