by Tim Love
I was taking a break on the cheap again, my usual way of getting over women. Down to my last few
notes, going along the walls seemed a good idea for my last day. Having dumped my backpack at the
train station I set off, walking along the top at first, though the sun was already burning. I remembered
reading that in places the walls were twelve metres high and five metres thick. No wonder they kept
out three crusades. They looked newer than that though - the strips of red brick added style. Every so
often there was a tower converted into a museum - always closed - or a treetop brushing my elbow.
Sometimes great Mosques appeared in the distance, the sea a bright backdrop, but usually houses
blocked the view and all I could see were the dusty streets below, with scrawny chickens in back gardens,
people carrying on their noisy lives as if I weren't there, though I was only a few feet above them.
I came to a stretch where there were vegetable plots outside the wall beside shanty huts of plastic
sheeting. Beyond that, a ring road, then cemeteries. I hadn't known how Muslims dealt with their
dead. I thought they might be burned, like I'd seen in India after my last break-up. Ahead, two men
smoked and laughed. I decided that I'd better avoid them. The steps were crumbling and there was
no handrail, but I was in no rush. The street inside the walls was empty except for skinny cats lying i
n the sun by doors, sipping from plastic containers. Once in the shade I felt thirsty. From a small
window of a corner shop with faded posters of kepaps, two dirty tubes emerged, one hanging down
towards a drain, the other going up towards an air-conditioning box. The shop opposite seemed
more promising, though small. I pushed the door, unsure whether it would open. My eyes adjusted
to the gloom. I found a litre bottle of water and a shelf devoted to sweets, many of them British,
traditional, like I'd read about in Roald Dahl novels. I picked a yellow sherbet fountain with a
liquorice stick - one last treat before catching the night train.
'7 lire 50,' said the shopkeeper, suddenly animated.
'Keep the change,' I said, giving him a note.
'No, no,' he replied, forcing coins into my palm, 'You from England?'
'I'm from Somalia.' He pointed to his chest.
'Your English is good,' I said.
'Thankyou sir,' he replied. 'I tried to go to England. Two times I tried. Too dangerous. You like the
'Yes,' I said.
'I got them for good price. I have to sell them you know. Everything,' he said, sweeping his arm
around, 'All this. I have to sell out. Is that right? I have to sell it all. Get money.'
'Are you going back to Somalia?' I asked
'I don't know. My wife you see, she isn't well. If you like anything I give you a very good price.
You like history?'
'I don't know much about it,' I said, puzzled.
'Now I will show you something,' he said, 'Wait.'
He opened the counter, latched the door, returned, and stood at a beaded curtain. 'This way,' he said,
disappearing through the doorway. I followed him up warped and creaky stairs to join him in a
stuffy bedroom, the shutters closed. He tapped a chest of drawers. 'This is my wife's. It's her ...
I don't know what you call it, her present to me when we married.'
'Dowry?' I offered.
He opened the top drawer, crammed with bright clothes. 'Traditional. Please. If you like.'
He took out a scarf, richly embroidered with beads, making it billow and flap. 'Good for your head
if you are walking. The sun, very hot today sir. It will make you ill.' He rolled his eyes and flopped
his head sideways, then recovered. He slid the next drawer open. White undergarments. 'No, not for
you,' he wagged a finger, 'but this bottom drawer, it's special. This is what I must show you.'
He knelt and gently opened it. 'This must go before my wife returns,' he said, feeling for a loose end
of material around a cylindrical package, 'It's not only the Egyptians you know. For centuries the
old ways have been passed down.' He put the bundle on the floor, trying to keep it still while slowly
I watched, not knowing what to do. 'How old is it?' I asked. 'Do not be afraid, it's traditional. My
wife, she's being looked after by the nuns. Of course, they do not ask for money, but I pay. I light a
candle and pay. She is not right.' He pointed to his head and continued to unwind the cloth. Then a
foot appeared. Tiny toes, brown as pickle. When he pressed, his thumb left a puckered dent. I
'You don't like? Well maybe the carpet? Turkish carpets. They're famous.'
Abandoning my purchases, I rushed down the stairs, out into the harsh sunlight and back to the wall,
up the stairs and along the wall, the only way I knew, laughter following me, getting louder.