In Egypt, there are three certain inevitabilities: things will break, chaos will prevail and nothing is for free. The tale of the toilet begins in a Sinai Peninsula restaurant, where my travel friends and I enjoyed a break from the street squalors.
After the second course, I had excused myself from the table, attended to the necessary business, and was about to unlock the door. I never like handling the latches of a public toilet. I especially don’t like complicated systems; where operating the mechanism requires a high degree of manual contact, enabling bacteria to freely wander up my hand.
This was a particularly complicated lock, and when I tried to exit, the knob simply swivelled without moving the barrel. I tried again, but the lock was faulty. The door was made of solid hardwood panels and reached from floor to roof. There was no way of climbing out.
Slightly embarrassed, I called out like a helpless tourist, far too impractical to survive in a place like Egypt. When the first waiter discovered what was happening he scurried off and immediately returned with the entire restaurant workforce. The owner also investigated and began screaming orders loud enough to disrupt the guests. The staff deployed at top speed with directions to liberate me from the cubicle ASAP.
A huge crash hit the door, shaking the cubicle foundations. I gathered they were kicking in the door, and slightly concerned for my well-being, I stood atop the toilet seat. On the third almighty crash a panel broke free and a foot flew though into the cubicle narrowly missing my shins.
Small cheers arose outside and as soon as the foot withdrew, about seven pairs of eyes were competing to see inside the cubicle. The staff climbed over each other to get a peek inside the cubicle and see the detained Westerner. A hand squeezed though the gap and began twisting the lock.
“It’s broken, I’ve tried that already,” I said.
Then another hand came through with a flathead screwdriver trying to unscrew the lock.
“No, you need a Phillips Head,” I tried to explain, but their English was not so good. “A Phillips Head. A screwdriver with a cross tip.”
I made a cross sign, to describe the type of screwdriver I needed, but they received it as some kind of Christian reference and instantly expressed their dislike, protesting something like “La Ilaha Illa Allah!” There is no god but Allah.
The owner, unaware of the spiritual friction, bellowed another order and all at once the waiters began offering me food.
“You OK? You want food?
We have good tahini. You want shawarma?”
There was no way I was going to eat in the toilet. Instead I needed a drink to cope with the mayhem.
“No it’s OK, but can you get me a beer? A cold beer please.”
“Beer, the man wants beer, get the man a beer now. Now!”
The owner snapped his fingers and a hand forced through the hole bearing a cold Egyptian Stella. The beer had been cooled in the same ice tubs as the seafood, and I peeled the transparent fish scales off the bottle neck.
I sipped away while the rescue operation took place. From my angle, the emergency team resembled an eight-armed giant squid blindly feeling its way around inside the cubicle. If they handed me the tools I could have done it in half the time but the owner insisted I sit and relax.
About 45 minutes later the lock was unscrewed and I was free to rejoin my table, with one beer added to the bill.