THEY SAID THE WEATHER would be balmy. It is hot. They said the air would be cool at night. It isn't. They said the belt of the Nile would look green from the air, and the desert all browns and reds. Everything seems brown and red. Nothing is as I expected. Good. It is just as I expected.
In the airport customs office, four people seem to be doing the work of one.
One person goes off with my passport, while three others, one of them a very fat woman, sit and stare at me. I stare back. They know I work for The Post. One of the men speaks.
"You work on Watergate?"
"It was hard?"
"You have been to Egypt before?"
"You are here for the shah?"
"What will you write?"
"What I see."
And so I shall. The first thing I see on the way in front of the airport is the lovely Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. Here, the homes of palatial, palm-shaded with verandas and cool fountains. No one much lives here, though: pThe phones don't work.
In the city, I see soldiers everywhere. They are uniformed in black and some of them man pillboxes planted in the large windows of colonial-era government buildings. They carry Russian Kalashnikov assault rifles, bayonets fixed. Everything about the soldiers is tough, military, forbidding -- except the faces. The faces are really friendly, almost sweet.
Cairo is a city that could go either way -- plunge into the 20th century, or simply lapse back into the 19th. One street will be in one century, another street in another. Mercedes compete with donkeys for space in the road. Sheep are driven through the streets. Some people dress like Parisians, most like extras in some Sigmund Romberg operetta about the desert.
This is something I did not expect. You expect somehow that the world will look the same wherever you go. This is true in Europe, but it is not true in the Third World. Here, the real costume is the clothes I wear. Here, many people still wear the Galabiyah , the traditional garb of the Egyptian peasantry. Here, women carry loads on their heads, and sprawl on the sidewalk when tired. Here, the milk comes in from the country by bike, the cans hung on either side of the back wheels.
Next to the fancy hospital where the shah is staying in a field of what looks like cabbage. The farmers who tend it live in huts made of mud bricks plastered with yet more mud. There is no running water. Boys squat and watch sheep. Nearby, two armored personnel carriers and what seems like a battalion of troops keep watch over the shah. Black Mercedes whiz by the road, while just beyond it the ancient boats of the Nile sail back and forth.
Our car has had three flats. Sometimes the phone just quits, and sometimes in the house where I am staying the water pressure does, too. Then there is no hot water. In the streets, people mass before the windows of shoe stores -- always -- and only shoe stores. And no one seems to know why. And sometimes the police wave on a car and stand right before it. A shoeshine boy painted my friend's brown shoes yellow. No one knows why he did that, either.
But if you stop and ask directions on the street, maybe a dozen people will try to help and maybe someone will walk you to where you want to go. People will say hello to you on the street, and smile at you and let you know that you are welcome. It is nice to be welcome.
From the plane, Cairo can look like any other city. There's a Hilton and a Sheraton and tall buildings everywhere you look. It is all very familiar. But off at Giza, the pyramids squat heavy and eternally on the desert, and nearby is the Nile. And soon, when you land, the unexpected begins to happen. Not to worry.
It is to be expected.