I was going to Egypt, this time by air, and I broke my journey at Milan. I did so for business reasons. But it was Christmas week, not a time for business, and I had to stay in Milan over the holidays. The weather was bad, the hotel empty and desolate.
Returning through the rain to the hotel one evening, after a restaurant dinner, I saw two Chinese men in dark-blue suits come out of the hotel dining room. Fellow Asiatics, the three of us, I thought, wanderers in industrial Europe. But they didn’t glance at me. They had companions: three more Chinese came out of the dining room, two young men in suits, a fresh-complexioned young woman in flowered tunic and slacks. Then five more Chinese came out, healthy young men and women; then about a dozen. Then I couldn’t count. Chinese poured out of the dining room and swirled about the spacious carpeted lobby before moving in a slow, softly chattering mass up the steps.
There must have been about a hundred Chinese. It was minutes before the lobby emptied. The waiters, serving napkins in hand, stood in the door of the dining room and watched, like people able at last to acknowledge an astonishment. Two more Chinese came out of the dining room; they were the last. They were both short, elderly men, wrinkled and stringy, with glasses. One of them held a fat wallet in his small hand, but awkwardly, as though the responsibility made him nervous. The waiters straightened up. Not attempting style, puzzling over the Italian notes, the old Chinese with the wallet tipped, thanked, and shook hands with each waiter. Then both the Chinese bowed and got into the lift. And the hotel lobby was desolate again. “They are the circus,” the dark-suited desk clerk said. He was as awed as the waiters. “Vengono dalla Cina rossa. They come from Red China.”
I left Milan in snow. In Cairo, in the derelict cul-de-sac behind my hotel, children in dingy jibbahs, feeble from their day-long Ramadan fasting, played football in the white, warm dust. In cafés, shabbier than I remembered, Greek and Lebanese businessmen in suits read the local French and English newspapers and talked with sullen excitement about the deals that might be made in Rhodesian tobacco, now that it was outlawed. The museum was still haunted by Egyptian guides possessing only native knowledge. And on the other bank of the Nile there was a new Hilton hotel.
But Egypt still had her revolution. Street signs were now in Arabic alone; people in tobacco kiosks reacted sharply, as to an insult, when they were asked for Egyptian cigarettes; and in the railway station, when I went to get the train south, there was a reminder of the wars that had come with the revolution. Sunburned soldiers, back from duty in Sinai, crouched and sprawled on the floor of the waiting room. These men with shrunken faces were the guardians of the land…
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Copyright © 1971 by V.S. Naipaul.