There is one story told by Ryszard Kapuscinski in his book Travels with Herodotus, about which I have written in Log 508, that has stuck in my mind, and about which I have been asking myself the sort of questions that Kapuscinski asked when reading the account by the Greek historian of his travels 2000 years ago.
It is something that happened to him during a visit to Cairo in 1960, when, under Nasser, the city was as he writes, “the hub of Third World liberation movements.” He describes how he noticed while walking around the city that all the streets had eyes and ears. “Here a building janitor, there a guard, over there a motionless figure in a beach chair, a bit farther on someone standing idly, just looking.” Together, he writes, their eyes created “a crisscrossing, coherent, panoptic observation network, covering the entire space of the street on which nothing could occur without being observed.”
I have never been in Cairo, but I remember an Egyptian sociologist I heard speak one day describing how it was a collection of neighbourhoods, and that everyone in your neighbourhood could be depended on to know everything that had happened. She gave the example of having lost her dog on one occasion, and how she was able to trace it by asking people in the street if they had seen it, which all of hem appeared to have done.
His observation of these idle observers led Kapuscinski to consider the subject of “superfluous people in the service of brute power,” which is what he thought these silent observers represented. A group of people searching for some significance in life, some recognition that someone is counting on them for something, that they have been noticed, that they have a purpose, a group of people of which, he says, all dictatorships take advantage. He describes how one day, a man who he had noticed always stood in the same spot, stopped him, told him he could show him an old mosque, and asked that he follow him. “I am by nature quite credulous,” Kapuscinski writes, “to the point even of regarding suspicion not as a manifestation of reason, but as a character flaw.” And he agreed to follow the man, who was polite, wore a tidy suit, spoke passable English and said his name was Ahmed.
First, they walked, then they took a long ride in a bus, getting off in an old neighbourhood of narrow streets, winding alleyways, dead ends, blank walls, the sort of place that “whoever walks in here without a guide will not walk out.” Nevertheless he followed, until Ahmed tapped a code on a massive metal door which was opened, after a shuffling of sandals within, and the grinding noise of a lock, and after a few words of explanation, they were admitted by a guard. They lead him to the doors a minaret, where both men gesture him to enter. In the dim light he can just make out the outline of a staircase that winds around the minaret, which looks to him like a chimney extending far up to a point of light open to the sky. “We go!” declared Ahmed, “Great view!”
Unfortunately the stairs are not only extremely narrow and slippery, covered in sand and loose plaster, but they have no handrails, nothing at all to hang on to. They climb and climb, Kapuscinski, who had previously admitted to a fear of heights, trying not to look down, and to shut off his imagination. Nothing about this minaret suggests it had been used in years. It is an abandoned place. He begins to feel fatigued, and slows down. “Up, Up!” urges Ahmed, who is walking behind, blocking off any chance of retreat. The abyss is right there, to the side. With no alternative, he climbs on, up and up. “Any sudden motion either of us might make and we would both tumble down several stories,” he writes.
At the very top is a small narrow terrace encircling the minaret. The guardrail around it has rusted over many centuries and fallen away, offering no protection. Ahmed pushes him on to the terrace, and then, leaning safely against the opening in the wall, says, “Give me your money.” With his money in the back pocket of his trousers, Kapuscinski fears that by reaching for it he might fall to the ground. Noticing his hesitation, Ahmed repeats, in a sharper voice, “Give me your money!”
“I slid my hand inside my pocket, and then, just as slowly, very slowly, pulled out my wallet. He took it without a word, turned around and started climbing down.” The most difficult manoeuvre for Kapuscinski was to make it over the one metre space between the terrace and the top of the staircase, which he crossed “centimetre by painful centimetre.”
When he reached the ground, the guard opened the door and let him out, and in the street some children helped him find a taxi. For the next several days he encountered Ahmed every day, always in the same spot. ”He looked at me with no expression on his face, as if we had never met. And I looked at him, I believe, also without expression.”
This is such a strange story. It is almost inconceivable that a man like Kapuscinski, whose adventures had taken him into all sorts of odd places, would have undertaken such a journey just on the say-so of an idle person he had seen in the street a few times. One might, I suppose suggest the opposite, that it was just such a man as Kapuscinski, always willing to plunge into every new and strange experience offered him, who would be quite likely to have gone with his self-appointed guide.
The story also raises the question as to whether this ever did happen, or was it one of those events, identified after his death by his biographers, that he made up for literary effect, stretching the bounds of his reportorial function into the realm of the creative.
But, even if it did happen as described, why would he --- a reporter who was always strapped for money because his employer the Polish Press Agency had such limited resources ---- why would be so coolly accept the loss of his wallet? What, besides money, did he lose when he handed over his wallet? His identification papers? His credit cards? His credentials? All those documents on which he was able to travel around the dark continent? He never says anything about this, although these are questions he himself might have been expected to ask if someone had described such an incident to him.
When I was recently reading his book on the Angolan war, he got into such scrapes, such dangerous situations, that I kept wondering whether all this had actually happened or if it was invented, designed to elevate his prose into the realm of the imagination.
About a great writer such questions can interpose between his reader and his work. But does the answer really matter?