Friday, October 21, 2005
Thursday, October 20, 2005
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Askary
I had been swimming at the club and was off to my grandmother's for lunch. I turned off of the tramway where Sporting meets Cleopatra, and took a right onto Aqaba Street towards Abu Qir, which I planned to cut across to reach Smouha. I just missed the green light and found myself waiting first-in-line at one of the city's most avoided traffic stops.
Beside my car stood a young askary, looking laid-back and serene, his weight rested on one leg and body bent at the hip. He looked to me with a generous smile and said "matsamma3na 7aga 7elwa keda," (how about a nice tune?). Without hesitation I turned up the volume as loud as I could comfortably bare and, to his luck, a song was just beginning. It was Fairuz's Shayif Il Ba7r, its unmistakeable leading violin hook arriving with the arresting might of a royal procession.
It was sunny and the young askary stood calm in the breeze, smiling at passing cars and to the sun-drenched buildings and deep blue sky beyond, tapping his thick hand on his white trousered lap in time with the cymbal-filled beat. Every few moments he'd glance over and we'd share an involuntary dumb grin, overwhelmed by the song's magnificence like children offered undeserved mounds of ice cream.
Just as the song finished the light turned green and the askary stepped into the middle of the road waving us through with his baton, still smiling as he bid me well with a quick reversed nod.
Monday, October 17, 2005
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
A Ramadan of Fury and Grace
Ramadan Kareem. I saw one fight on each day of the three days I spent in Alexandria for the sixth of October weekend. They were special fights, Ramadan fights. That is, unlike the year-round scuffles in which men lunge to teach one another lessons (da ana 7awareek/7atalla3----/7arabeek, ta3ala ya ebn el ----, etc.), these altercations are far more personal, focused, pre-pedagogic. They rarely ever involve more than the two people fighting, and those who do intervene seem to have a difficult time making good. This needs little explaining, as fasting makes some people angry and, in the context of slow heavy traffic where tempers are easy to lose, the pared down mind of a faster becomes all the more like an airtight tunnel, channelling such initially simple knee-jerk reactions to annoyance with the force and determination of a lead pellet channeled through the barrel of a gun. This is, of course, not considering that Ramadan offers us a chance for reflecting on and working to cleanse our temperaments.
The first fight I saw was by the foot bridge at Sidi Gaber on Abu Qir Street (or Horreya Avenue, bleh) next to a group of Microbuses unloading commuters. Red-faced, the two men were choking one another by the collars of their shirts. The less built man held the other with both hands while the larger one had one hand at his opponent’s neck and another held in a fist by his own ear, his arm cocked like the trigger of a gun. On his face was the agonized tango of "'gonna hit you hard you son of a ----" and "won’t do it", his ready arm twitching back and forth accordingly, partly, perhaps, for aggressive show. The smaller man’s shirt was half way up his back, marking a solid step outside the circle of collectedness and into the square of bahdala (dramatic untidiness, destitution).
The second one wasn’t really a fight but it counts. It was at that detour-like traffic light taken to enter Sidi Gaber station by those heading west on Abu Qir Street. It involved a young man flipping out, screaming into the window of a middle-aged man seated in a red Fiat 128. The young man had stepped out of the passenger side of a large and luxurious car (driven by a young woman in a headscarf) waiting behind the Fiat at a red light. He was yelling something about the other man being an animal ("inta hayawan?!") and about him not hearing ("atrash?! mabteshma3sh?!"). And with each of the older man’s shocked and modest mumblings, the younger one grew more shrill and agitated, his whole body eventually gyrating like a child’s might, mid-tantrum. He reached into the car repeatedly, knocking the side-mirror and punching the older man’s hands as they gestured apology and explanation. He must have been audible to at least a thousand people. The old man resorted to a somber "Rabbena ysam7ak yabni," (may God forgive you, my son). A large middle-aged man got out of a third car, his mobile held to his ear, and calmly pulled away the still-shouting youngster, who parted with a final "7ayawan!" and a loud and visible tfoo, spat over his shoulder onto the spot where he’d been standing.
The third fight was by the sea. There were two small cars stalled behind one another in the middle lane headed west along the Corniche at Laurent (Loraan). Next to the cars was one man bent over another, pounding his back with his fists. What desolation! And the awkwardness of it all. In this society where people hold each other back, the social element figures prominent in fights, except with children maybe, as they seem more prone to fight silent spectator-less fights. And so to actually be allowed one’s fill of carnal vengeance (as were these two men), there may result, one imagines, a diluting of rage into little more than an anxious self-conscious squint. And so, having driven past, I pictured the Corniche fighters walking back to their cars shaken and bruised, with neither comforting nor critical a word, from anyone.
Does the fasting man, as he punches and snarls, consider his fall, feel the same way towards it, as does a person in the midst of an untimely (i.e. pre-dusk) lustful encounter with his or her spouse? Perhaps there is little merit in contrasting two such defeats of a faster’s will. In comparison, both instances involve engrossment, but also reflexivity. If there weren’t the latter, people wouldn’t have resorted so often to that eerily intimate accusation: "fattarteni 3aleik," (you made me break-fast on you).
A Hungry Public's Finest Hour
In the minutes around maghreb the city streets are a sight to behold. The cars are few and even those who rush, their faces seem serene. It is a slice of the day when the nods of taxi drivers impart a sweeter scent of duty. The nods are borne of the same spirit as the forgiving smiles of those seeking rides home, as they receive the raised apologetic palms of passing drivers in home-bound cabs. Many drivers will stop to hand the hailing person dry dates for an immediate breaking of their fast. Just like the men, young and old, alone and in groups, who patrol on foot the lanes of busy streets bearing boxes of dates and trays of plastic-cup water and juice, briskly meting out portions to passers by, themselves jubilant in simple ways as they thank through their windows. The sky is a soft color and the city glows beige in the gentlest total light possible. On some streets the street-lights come on; they hang striking and dainty like a necklace of gold circles threading the cityscape, around the city’s neck, or in some parts her brow. One taxi driver called it ‘the hour of reda, contentment’. Asked why, he said matter-of-factly, as he pointed an open palm to the city flying by, "3ashan kollo yekhdem kollo bel shakl da, lazim yeb2a fee reda; reda mabein el nas, we reda min Rabbena," (for all to serve one another like this there must be contentment; contentment among people, and contentment from God).