The airport is already swankier. Clicketty-click polished granite floors where the carpeting does not deaden footsteps, the concourse wider, an enlarged duty-free, shops glittering with souvenirs – costume jewellery, camels, miniature coffee pots. Sleek kiosks of global brands. Rows of backlit signages, lights reflected off all surfaces like some kind of weird visual echo chamber.
Outside there are new flyovers, soaring and swooping. There are more buildings than I care to remember. The sea is further away than I thought, invisible behind manmade enclosures. Streets are turgid with more crowds, more traffic, no parking spots, nothing seems empty. An August heat haze shimmers above everything.
We have the car driven straight to the rented flat, the lease has been signed almost a month ago. No-one can stomach the idea of another night in a hotel. We have just spent ten nights in one. I want to sleep on my own sheets in some strange Victorian attack of fastidiousness. We drop the baggage off and drive to our old supermarket, it is bigger and brighter and carries more stuff. There are pale gold guavas from Egypt on display. I grab a couple. I am clutching at straws. Egypt is behind us.
All expats know this – the relationship with the different physical spaces they inhabit is like a summer romance. Intense while it lasts, but necessarily finite. The outcome is known, the only unknown is the exact timing. So for me the end comes again one April weekend. The phone network in the room is somewhat unreliable. My husband goes out to the garden to take a call, rather a long call. When he comes back in again, that is it – Egypt is over. He has a new posting. Back where he started nearly two decades ago. Going back is to be the new forward.
The papers take a long time. Bureaucracy everywhere grinds exceedingly slow, exceedingly arbitrary. His documents come, mine do not. Mine turn up, but the child’s are stuck. Why? He is thirteen. Obviously - needs extra scrutiny before he can be let into the country.
The packers come. Home is dismantled, stripped ruthlessly back into a house in one day. We move to the nearest hotel, the same one where we stayed on first landing here, from where we went house-hunting. The journey out is a mirror image of the journey in. Each step retraced in reverse order.
Everything is imbued with the weight of leave-taking. A plate of koshari, is that the last one? An email, a cup of mint tea, a conversation. I am not ready to leave the country. I am sick with longing. I am so ready to leave. I am dizzy with anticipation. It is agonising. It’s no big deal. This camping out in the no-man’s land of the hotel, the in-between twilight zone of two sets of documents, this suspension of normal life. The hanging around not knowing which way to feel exactly. Not knowing which coping mechanism to use. I’ve been here before, I’ve done this before, I’ll do it again, I’ll pick up the pieces, I’ll be alright. As it so happens, alright is a long time coming.
I make the beds with my own sheets but it does not make them feel comfortably mine. I fall into bed exhausted, I wake up wondering why the ceiling looks different. My feet no longer fit snugly into the streets of this neighbourhood. The same neighbourhood where we lived the first time round, our old compound is a short walk away. I insist that we walk there one evening. The child remembers nothing – he left when he was a toddler. I feel vaguely resentful that he doesn’t, and doesn’t even seem to mind. I do not remember exactly either. The roads look different, there are no vacant plots. Everything has been filled in while we were away.
The police station at the end of the street cowers in the shadow of a huge black and white public building. The dilapidated semidetached opposite has morphed into a construction site, the mixers and other equipment lined up neatly after hours. The whole neighbourhood feels taller, higher, narrower. Breathlessly busy. The population seems to have doubled. There are cars crammed onto pavements, parked two deep into single-car bays, one in front of the other. The off-license has disappeared, reincarnated into a musical instruments shop. The people we knew here have moved out. To other neighbourhoods. To other countries.
When we reach the compound, we find the gates firmly locked. The glass is frosted and anyway it is too dark, I cannot see if the old mesquite that used to shade our balcony is still standing or not. The gates never used to be shut, never mind locked, when we lived here. I say this as much to myself as to the child. ‘Gated’ means a different thing now all over post-2011 Arablands. We turn back. I don’t know if I should be peeved. Heraclitus comes to mind. Am I trying too hard to step into the same river? I should know better. I bury the whole thing deep but it keeps bobbing up, bob, bob, bob, like a cork in water.
A friend who lived here years ago writes. Casually asks if I have seen the flamingos. I am extra alert next time I pass that way, but I cannot spot the flocks. The shoreline has moved a few hundred feet away. Dazzling sunlight on empty waters. But my distant vision is no more what it was. I ask the others in the car. They too can’t see any.
There has been widespread land reclamation, 10-15% of the total area has been added over, reclaimed from the bay. Only one side is relatively open water, buildings and a causeway choke the other three sides. The booms of several construction cranes spike a horizon transformed too swiftly into a skyline. A solitary heron circles overhead and lands on a half-submerged boulder. There are no flamingos. Maybe I am too early, it is still too warm. Or maybe I am too late altogether.