Vertigo, page 1
Translated by Robin Moger
The Grand Hyatt Hotel
The noise from a wedding procession was blaring out from in front of the banqueting hall proclaiming the fall of a new victim. His name, along with that of his bride, was etched into the gold plaque on the door: Congratulations, Khaled and Nancy. The procession moved slowly enough for the fat-bellied and deeply bored belly dancers, chandeliers perched on their heads, to execute a few tired moves that could scarcely be called dancing. It was led by the drummer, clad in a bright sky-blue waistcoat that clashed horribly with the ruffles dangling from his sleeves and the electric pink worn by the rest of the troupe. With long frizzy hair hanging low across his forehead, he was the maestro, that much was clear; a cosmonaut advancing slowly down the path that his fellow musicians had cleared through the guests, utterly absorbed in beating the drum in his hands.
Ahmed Kamal was merely the wedding photographer, and like all wedding photographers he was fully aware of his importance to the event, never receiving the respect he was due. Not that he took it any the less seriously for that: it was a battle to record a moment that would become the memory of a lifetime. No one would remember him: the humble drone content to play the role of pollinator, sacrificing himself that others may live on and eat the honey. With his wine-coloured shirt, habitual jeans and light brown jacket to complete the outfit, he looked like a soap star from the eighties. Add a couple of dark leather patches to his elbows and the transformation into Chuck Norris would be complete. Deep down he was convinced that there existed a strong resemblance between himself and Amr Diab, but despite the effort he put into choosing his clothes, even adopting the same gait as the Egyptian pop star, no one else seemed to notice. He took great pains over his personal appearance – which accounted for most of his income (down to the last pound in his pocket if need be) – and paid the occasional visit to the Salah Golden Gym, and hence the result: a fit young man of medium height, wearing glasses that concealed mischievous twinkling eyes beneath which hung two dark crescents, the classic marks of the night worker. The glasses also concealed eyesight so weak that the blind sage Taha Hussein would have been moved to pity.
He never got to sleep before six in the morning and never left a wedding without the memory of a beautiful young woman whose gaze, or so he thought, had followed him around all night. Taking a shot of the woman’s face in case he met her again, he would show it to his colleagues, with his own embellished commentary, hinting that it was she who had requested the photo and his telephone number and fallen head over heels in love. Her eyes had welled with tears, he’d tell them, because she was engaged, her fiancé standing beside her, while she longed for the chance to turn back time and get to know him better.
He felt for the camera and grasped it by the strap, exuding self-confidence, a sense that he’d been born with the thing in his hand. Not to mention that the camera’s weight helped flex his biceps, which ensured that the money spent in the gym hadn’t gone to waste.
The procession had come to an end and the DJ, clearly a natural, had begun to spin, putting on a zar for the couple and their relations, a sauna to sap the groom’s energy and drive fevered wedding-night fantasies from his head. Ahmed Kamal began his nightly struggle to frame the happy couple without a tangle of hands, shoulders and heads spoiling the shot. Then there were the tiresome guests to contend with. He paid particular attention to the bride’s girlfriends, who treated the event like a Coco Chanel fashion show, in their strappy dresses and see-through shawls. Who knows? They might meet the love of their life, and, if not, it was enough to see themselves reflected in the eyes of the young men they encountered.
Ahmed had grown used to reading the hints and glances that flew around, indeed he had become something of an expert when it came to picking up these subtle signs of mutual understanding, much like a Second World War signals officer intercepting German code.
He worked away until it was time for the buffet, at which point he usually wandered out to the balcony overlooking the Nile to smoke a cigarette, or at least he did now, ever since Mr Rifaat, the hotel’s events planner, had once spotted him loitering by the food. With the air of a man who has caught a serial killer in the act, Mr Rifaat had chided him in stentorian tones. ‘You eat when the guests are done.’
Ahmed hadn’t gone near the buffet since, though he would occasionally join his fellow workers in the kitchen to gulp down prawns and khalta rice, rounded off with his favourite Umm Ali dessert.
Today he wasn’t hungry and so went outside, blowing smoke rings, geometric patterns quickly dispersed by the fresh breeze. He thought of his father, Kamal Ibrahim, who had died when Ahmed was nineteen years old, leaving him with his mother, his sister Aya, the camera and a stock of films, all of which Ahmed had sold before handing over the lab to a new tenant who was able to pay the monthly rent. His father had left unpaid debts and in the end his son had had no choice but to let the place go. With what was left over he had bought himself a digital camera and a desktop computer, in keeping with the spirit of the age, though parting with the original equipment, invested as it was with his late father’s presence, was a significant step for him. The only thing he inherited from his father was his contacts with the old hotel employees, all of whom would appear quite moved whenever they saw Ahmed, remembering his father and his kindly soul. All, that is, save Mr Rifaat, who hadn’t been around in his father’s time and made a point of belittling him.
It had gone a quarter past three in the morning when Ahmed decided he had fulfilled the terms of his contract with the groom and left the banquet hall. He put his equipment in his bag and handed over the disks to Salim, the man who had taken over the management of the hotel’s photography service from his father. This short, fat, sweaty creature, a damp handkerchief permanently clutched in his hand, wore a three-piece suit in both summer and winter, over a rouge-red shirt. His feet were packed into his shiny black loafers, while a thick gold chain looped down over his hairless chest, his bulging belly like that of an irqsus juice vendor. In his interactions with the dancers and waitresses, and occasionally with the hotel guests and businessmen who passed through the lobby, he deployed a brand of lumbering humour by no means free of sexual innuendo. He was practically omniscient: a one-man spy network driven by excessive exhibitionism who knew all there was to know about every visitor to the hotel. Formerly an assistant to a showbiz agent, he had absconded with all the stars’ private phone numbers and, despite knowing nothing about photography, had rented the lab, transforming it into a base from which his tentacles could reach out to embrace everyone around him. Married to two women and maintaining a relationship with a third, he spent lavishly on his squalid night-time adventures and his taste for lumps of hashish wrapped in coloured cellophane, though he was tight-fisted when it came to paying his photographers’ wages.
When Ahmed had come to work for him after his father’s death, Salim had welcomed him with open arms because Ahmed knew the place and was familiar with the job. But Salim’s affection was tempered by caution: he knew the place had belonged to Ahmed’s father and didn’t want to encourage any ambitions he might have for the place. His solution? To keep the photographers’ wages at a level that barely covered their daily necessities, ensuring they couldn’t get by without him.
Having seen Salim, Ahmed made his usual trip to the fortieth floor where one could look down on the Qasr el-Nil Bridge, the Cairo Tower and the outskirts of Zamalek on one side, before turning to gaze upon the sleepy streets of Garden City. The view, combined with softly playing music, scattered candles and roses, gave the rooftop bar its unmistakable ambience.
The rotating Bar Vertigo:
This pianist (as he loved to be called) had been until recently not only unmarried but unattached, save the occasional flirtation with one or other of the waitresses who worked in the bar restaurant. That these relationships never took off was wholly due to the sense of ennui with which he had approached life since childhood. He was a butterfly of long habit, his eyes scarcely able to bear the same sight twice, particularly when a girl gave too generously or sweetly, or failed to understand his changeable nature and raised the idea of marriage. Hossam never saved a penny of his salary except for what he spent on his ailing mother, who lived in a rent-controlled, high-ceilinged apartment in the Bab el-Louq district.
Then one day the hotel’s events planner informed him that his cooperation was needed in a certain philanthropic venture. The man, who was his friend as well as his manager, broached the subject of Kristina, the young Moldovan who had arrived in Egypt among a horde of Russians fleeing economic hardship in their homeland like an invasion of summer ants. The man wanted Hossam to marry the girl. She was respectable, single and, like Hossam, a musician, not one of those Russian showgirls. There would be an understanding: she would support herself financially while he would help her acquire her residency.
Hossam first saw her at a meeting for hotel employees. He’d heard, of course, about the beauty of women from that part of the world, but had never imagined that any gene pool could evolve to the point where it produced a vision like Kristina, with her translucent white skin, chestnut-coloured hair and slender, elegant frame. She had no need of make-up. Her gaze carried a hidden melancholy, leavened by a dimpled smile that drove all thoughts from the head of any man she spoke to, while beneath her prettily correct English lurked an accent that occasionally got the better of her. ‘I don’t know khow …’ as she would say. She lived in a rented apartment where Hossam was free to unwind any time he wanted.
Hossam agreed, on the condition that they spent a month getting to know each other first, and yet at the same time – and for the first time in his life – he was experiencing love. He fell for her when she failed to bore him. She was completely different to every other woman he had known: liberated and uncomplicated, conscious of her beauty but without vanity. Any Egyptian girl that beautiful, he thought, would have been supremely superficial. More importantly, though, she never nagged: none of that ‘Where have you been?’ or ‘I’ll stay up until you get home,’ or ‘Give me a missed call when you’re coming round.’
Despite the obvious differences between Ahmed and Hossam, they were the greatest of friends as if, by virtue of this dissimilarity, they completed one another. They were of the same social class and background, but then life had stepped in to separate them. Ahmed had gained a degree in commerce, while Hossam had graduated in music only to find there was no work for him. When the hotel had advertised for a qualified musician, and because he was a friend, Ahmed had brought him along.
Ahmed wandered over to Hossam and, as was his habit, reached for the keys and banged out a few discordant notes. Knowing there was only one person capable of being so tiresome, Hossam ignored him.
‘What’s going on, man? Playing to the four walls?’
‘There’s a couple of foreign lovebirds who look like they’ll be spending the night up here.’
‘I’m famished. Can’t you get off?’
‘Mr Morgan’s here and he’s not taking crap from anybody.’
‘Fine, I’ll be at the bar, but see what you can do.’
‘Well, don’t order anything. There was enough trouble over that orange juice I had to pay for last time …’
‘Come round to my place and, on my father’s grave, you won’t find a glass of cold water.’
‘What’s new about that!’
Ahmed made his way over to the bar, put his camera bag down and greeted Hani the barman.
‘So, Hani, how are you doing, pal?’
‘Just fine, my friend. Pleasure to have you.’
‘Can you believe that little miser? He doesn’t want me to order anything from you.’
‘Just wait a bit until that couple leave and I’ll get you some juice … Cool?’
‘Cool, but listen: you want your portrait taken with all that booze lined up behind you? You’ll go to hell in style.’
‘Do my portrait full-length but like this … hold on.’
Hani straightened out his collar, lined up the glasses in front of him then adopted the posture of a kangaroo, his chin cupped in his hand. Ahmed retreated a few steps, composed the shot and took two pictures, a close up then a wide-angle shot of the whole bar. Almost immediately Hossam slid over, placing his hand on Hani’s shoulder and grinning, having first attempted to give Hani horns, wiggled two fingers behind his head.
Ahmed captured a moment from their lives.
‘Got any cigarettes?’ asked Hossam.
Ahmed handed him one and lit it for him.
‘So what’s up, man?’
Hossam took an extended drag and they went over to the window where they gazed down on Cairo drowning in its dust. Only the brightly lit tops of the tall buildings lining the Nile poked through the haze.
‘I don’t know,’ said Hossam. ‘It looks like I’m going to do something crazy, Ahmed.’
Ahmed cocked an inquisitive eye.
‘What is it?’
‘No, man, we’re getting married.’
‘Finally, you sly dog! I was beginning to think you’d never get there. So why this one?’
‘I love her, Ahmed, for real …’
‘I luff her, Ahmed, for weal …’ echoed Ahmed. ‘Since when!’
‘If you’re going to make fun of me I won’t tell you anything.’
‘OK, OK, don’t get so uptight: your bald spot’s going red. Spill it …’
‘You know it all already. She’s on my wavelength for one thing, and who else is going to take me in my circumstances? Mum’s got one foot in the grave and the owners of the building have got their eye on the apartment. They’re waiting for her to kick the bucket so they can sell the land. The apartment’s rent-controlled and in my father’s name, plus it’s in a perfect location: it’s hopeless. I can’t even iron my own shirt, Ahmed, and anyway, I’ve really fallen for her … I can’t stand the thought of another guy laying a finger on her.’
‘I doubt she’ll iron your shirts, but she’s a great girl, anyone can see that. She even fancies you a bit, and she’s cute … No younger sisters, by any chance?’
‘Fancies me? A bit?! My friend, she adores me.’
‘All right, then. Know what she did the day before yesterday? Bought me some cologne.’
‘That’s because you smell awful.’
Ahmed blew a smoke ring.
‘And are you really sure about her?’
‘She’s a good girl, really lovely. She’s Moldovan, but her family are peasants, just like the ones we’ve got here. Salt of the earth.’
‘She a virgin?’
‘Man, I don’t care about that stuff. Her past is her business.
‘So you’re saying she isn’t …?’
‘Showing your ignorance. My friend, I’m going to turn her into something else, I’m going to change her. In fact, consider her changed from this point onwards. Anyway, we agree on everything and she never refuses me anything.’
Ahmed saw that he had pushed hard enough on Hossam’s heart to bring the love flooding into his eyes and couldn’t hold back a chuckle. Hossam laughed in turn and hugged him.
‘So, are you going to name the boy after me?’
‘Ahmedov Kamalovich. You know, it’s not so bad!’
‘He’d be a genius.’
Hossam took a small black box from his pocket and, looking left and right to check that no one could see him, said, ‘What do you think?’
Ahmed opened the box and looked at the modest gold ring within.
‘Nice one, Hoz. You could give that girl the world and she’d deserve it.’
At that moment the doors of the lift immediately facing the bar’s entrance slid open and two men in their thirties stepped out. The first came to a halt outside the door and lit a cigar of a calibre that seemed entirely in keeping with the cut of his dark delicately pinstriped suit, broad-collared shirt, gold-plated cufflinks and chunky watch that was like a Geiger counter strapped to his wrist. You know the type: so natty you’d think they were born in a suit, a flamboyant tie, pale skin flushed with wine, thick, copper-coloured hair, svelte-bodied, the very latest mobile phone. You might catch him making a call on a satellite phone to check the price of tulips in Holland or the specials on a Parisian restaurant menu. They are invariably called Asim or Shukri.
The other man, who appeared to be some kind of assistant to the first, approached the nearest waitress and whispered a few words in her ear. She gestured in the direction of Mr Morgan, the bar’s manager, who went over to the assistant and conferred briefly with him. Mr Morgan then walked quickly over to the man waiting outside, unfurling his hands in a gesture of effusive greeting a good two metres before he reached him.