Cairo is a place of surprises. You go into the coffee shop to meet a friend, and by the time you come out the licence plate on the back of your car has disappeared. Not the licence, not the car - but the licence plate. What on earth could be more absurd? Granted, when that happened to me, the day I arrived in the city, I was parked in the wrong place - unbeknown to me, indeed, of all possible misfortunes, outside the Armenian Embassy - but I had asked the uniformed policeman guarding that particular stretch of pavement, he had directed me to a particular spot, and he seemed to appreciate the fact that there was no other parking within a five mile radius. Which incidentally is why outside this coffee shop on the posh Nile island of Zamalek, as elsewhere in Cairo, people commit all kinds of parking sins with relative impunity. It is also why they live in fear not only of parking tickets but of traffic police physically removing their cars to safer havens - in the ever elusive custody of the police. But I had never, not once in 30 years, heard of anyone losing a licence plate as a result of parking.
Of course I should have known that the policeman in question, an embassy guard who believe it or not did not even know which embassy he was posted at, was in no position to let me or anyone else park. Still, even a short drive in Cairo is so completely stressful, you end up being grateful for any sympathy, and you latch onto whatever parking presents itself - or seems to. And that is how, after jumping up and down, reasoning with the embassy security - who had removed the licence plate and refused to give it back - and eventually insulting them and the person of the ambassador, I ended up spending my first evening in Cairo at the nearest police station filing a report. This took some three hours, but three days later there was still no sign of my licence plate, which the embassy, I was told, should have handed over to State Security, who would in turn hand it into the police station. I could not drive without it, so naturally I complained to whoever asked why I was not driving, voicing my despair.
In the end a senior member of the family who had laughed in my face went back to the embassy and actually met the ambassador - who complained of me shouting, apparently - and the licence plate was retrieved. No one - not the embassy, not the police with whom I filed the report, not said senior member of the family, could explain to me why the licence plate rather than the car had been removed - let alone where on earth one was supposed to park when one went for a cup of coffee.