I have seen Cairo since the war years and that time seemed to shimmer as a mirage over the present. The Hiltons and the Sheratons were real enough, the teeming jerry-built dun-coloured traffic-ridden deafening city, but in my head was that other potent place, conjured up by the smell of dung and paraffin, the felt-shod tittuping sound of a donkey’s hooves, kites floating in a Wedgwood blue sky, the baroque gaiety of Arabic script.
The place didn’t look the same but it felt the same; sensations clutched and transformed me. I stood outside some concrete and plate-glass tower-block, picked a handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes. Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia, on a pavement awash with packaged American matrons, crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant. That, inside the head, everything happens at once.