He had died. It hurt. He was a friend who loved life. A smile always adorned his face. His family and friends miss him.
I was sitting on the terrace of the Cairo Four Seasons looking at the magnificent Nile flow by. I was kindly served a cold glass of pomegranate juice, compliments of the day manager, as I was waiting for my friends to arrive. I was early.
It was just past noon and the sun was out in full force, but there was a cool breeze and, with the blue sky, not a cloud in sight. I was trying to relax. I had been deeply sad about the loss of my friend. But I realized it was foolish to brood about something I could not control.
I dismissed the thought and absorbed the constantly changing panorama unfolding before me. The Nile waters shimmering as they reflected the sun’s rays. The feluccas sailing across. A beautiful and serene painting in the making.
My mobile phone interrupted the calm. It was Alexander Petrov, a Russian painter who lives in Paris and commutes between there and Moscow. I met Petrov during my art gallery and exhibition visits. Alexander told me that Chen Lee, Layla Miller, and Robert Davies were downstairs in the lobby.
Lee was a China expert teaching in London for the past decade, and a fellow at a research centre. Layla was a medical scientist of Lebanese origin living in Egypt but constantly traveling. Davies was an American historian, working in Washington D.C. at a conservative think tank.
Walking to the restaurant, I remembered meeting Chen three years earlier at a London conference. Robert, I met via my nephew at a World Bank lunch a year earlier; Layla, by accident, in the early days of the pandemic at a friend’s home. Coincidentally, she knew Robert from her visits to D.C.
We had a table reserved in a private corner as this get-together had been planned more than six weeks earlier. Davies was coming to visit Layla. Chen was heading to Riyadh and agreed to stop by in Cairo. Alexander was visiting Cairo to go to the newly inaugurated museum of civilizations. Layla lived here.
After settling in, the head waiter appeared and welcomed us with a warm smile and gave us the menus. We ordered both sparkling and still mineral water. Robert and I also asked for iced tea.
We ordered off the menu, but Alexander was unhappy there was no koshari. Layla and Robert chose a plate of chicken kebab with vegetables, Chen asked for a spicey carbonara, Alexander settled for a spaghetti pomodoro, and I had fish with boiled potatoes.
After some opening pleasantries, Robert kicked off a serious discussion. He looked at Layla and posed a question. ‘Will Egypt suffer because of the Ukraine war?’
Layla nodded: ‘yes, Robert, Egypt will suffer.’ She explained how Egypt depends on Ukraine and Russia for most wheat imports.
Alexander added, ‘many countries will suffer because of this war. Prices of essential products and energy will skyrocket.’
Chen was quiet, listening intently.
Alexander continued, saying, ‘I am no supporter of Putin, but compared to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen, what is happening in Ukraine is a walk in the park.’
Robert, with astonishment on his face, retorted: ‘how can you say that?’
Layla, with sharp hazel eyes, lifted her brows in a high curve, giving her a look of innocent surprise. I could not discern if she was surprised by what Alexander said or by Robert’s reaction.
The head waiter arrived with his Nubian smile and with two assistants served us in a jiffy. We dug in.
A moment of silence. Then Alexander said in a passionate voice, ‘I am against violence — so I am against war — but you can’t compare the million casualties in Iraq, the million plus in Afghanistan and the 400,000 in Yemen with a few thousand in Ukraine; unless you are brainwashed by the Western media.’
Robert swallowed hard: ‘Putin started this war.’
Alexander responded: ‘yes, yes, he did, but the raw facts are clear.’ He put his fork and spoon down with spaghetti circling the fork and counted on his fingers: ‘first, America would not allow missiles in Cuba. Why would Russia allow missiles in Ukraine 180 seconds from Moscow? Second, NATO has been sending trainers and advisers to work with the Ukrainian military for 14 months. Third….’
Robert cut him off: ‘none of this is an excuse. The West will put Russia in its place’, he said, as he continued to work on his kebabs.
Alexander and Robert had never met, and it was clear animosity was growing between them. I could see their body language as Layla, to no avail, tried to change the subject. Chen was clearly enjoying his carbonara and eating silently, observing the table — as was the whole restaurant.
I looked at Layla: ‘no one is talking about the pandemic in Ukraine and Russia. What are the facts?’
Layla shifted in my direction. Sipping sparkling water, she answered, ‘no one knows, no talk about coronavirus generally as the Ukraine war has usurped the news; and specifically no data from Russia and Ukraine.’
Looking at Chen, Robert announced, ‘it all began in China and it still looms large there, with the lockdown in Shanghai and draconian measures popping up every now and then.’
Chen was unmoved. Finishing his spaghetti, he took a slice of bread and buttered it, adding some pepper. Oddly, he did not eat it but put it on the side of his plate.
I took over the conversational mantle and posited that the world has been going from one crisis to another since late 2019. Pandemic, I explained, then war in Ukraine: both touching the lives of billions of people. I then asked what was next, picking up my iced tea for a sip.
No one reacted. I continued, explaining that today Europe is faced with an economic and social depression; America’s growth is stifled; the Chinese economy is derailed; inflation is rising everywhere; and the supply bottlenecks are worsening, not to mention the expected contractions as interest rates rise.
Layla added: ‘Germany faces high energy prices; Turkey and Italy enormous inflation; Czechia, Poland and Moldova a huge influx of refugees; Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, and others historic surges in food prices.’
I added that none of this was good news, that the U.S. economy had contracted last quarter and Europe was facing a recession.
Chen, quiet until then, slowly and in clear, perfect English said, ‘leadership around the world – specifically, the five members of the Security Council — is on the verge of being struck down.’
We all looked at Chen as he finished his food and moved his right palm down across the table.
‘Believe me, friends’, he continued calmly, ‘we have witnessed the pandemic – which is not over – and it was very poorly dealt with by the top five global leaders (Biden, Johnson, Xi, Putin and Macron).
‘Then the Ukraine challenge emerged and again the five leaders messed up in a huge manner: allowing the train to leave the station, war to occur and chaos to ensue. It is not over yet with all its potential ramifications.’
‘Finally’, Chen concluded as we waved to the server for coffee and tea, ‘one more conflict, be it economic, political, social, or military, and it is three strikes: and these leaders should be struck out.’
Alexander shook his head in agreement: ‘Putin has failed, and Macron is a lightweight.’
Robert disagreed: ‘Biden is doing a good job and will strike Putin down, putting Russia in its place.’
Chen interjected, ‘Robert, as a historian, you don’t believe that. Xi Jinping has derailed China’s political system and disrupted its economy.’
Layla said, ‘as for Boris, he saved his seat, but his actions are hurting his party. If it weren’t for the weak Labour Party, he would have been gone a long time ago.’
I was listening carefully and remembered that the ‘three strikes’ rule in baseball triggers when a batter receives three strikes during his time at bat, which leads to an ‘out’. But I also recalled that the three-strike law is one that can remove offenders from the general population to make the community safer. That law still exists in some U.S. states. The only cost was of housing offenders for the rest of their natural life.
As the conversation continued, I visualised Biden, Putin, Macron, Xi Jinping, and Boris Johnson all housed altogether in Madagascar, at the cost of all humanity, to make the world a safer place.