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Gayyash Al 'Aatifa

Monday, February 27, 2006

When Alley Cats Chat

After Eight, the club, lends its name to an ahwa (coffeshop) and the alley that runs between Kasr El Nil and Mohammed Bassiouni streets. In there you can buy flowers and a mobile phone, check your email, photocopy your ID, mend clothes, iron them, smoke shisha, drink tea and eat fuul. There is also home-style food, over at Om Dahab's little stall.

Om Dahab is an asshole, an endearingly artful and deliberate one, and therein lies her genius. She can be mean and difficult, but always in a way that uplifts, charms and invites for play. You leave having grown closer to her and she to you. I asked for "kromb ma7shi" (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice) and she refused my order and made fun of me to the other patrons. I waited and she eventually returned, asking if I'd meant "ma7shi kromb", her maternal indulgent eyes drilling me with reconciliation. She then said that I had to pay up front because she didn't trust me. I asked whether I needed to prove myself to earn her trust. She said yes then pointed to a seated man and said that he's from Aswan and that she knows him and his mother and his father and his entire family. I told her that I was from Alex and that I'd make sure to bring my brother when he visits. And then I paid.

I sat and waited next to the man from Aswan, who looked in his late thirties, had a moustache and wore an elegant suit. Om Dahab had shouted over telling him he was unlucky and that he'd have to wait a bit for the kofta. He said it was ok and got someone to bring him a shisha from the adjoining ahwa. A few minutes into his puffing of the me3assel half-smoke, a smiling girl of about twenty walked up and removed the thimble-shaped hood of his shisha and placed it on the table beside him. She wore jeans and a denim shirt embroidered with colored thread on the pockets and lapels and her hair was up in a bun, her faced lightly made up. She leaned forward and with theatrical slowness removed the clay bowl from the pipe stem and dumped its contents—the tobacco and lit coal—onto the pipe's collar tray. The man made a single frustrated tutt and took a long deep breath with closed eyes. The girl straightened her back and made a 'hmph' sound. She turned on her heel and walked off. I couldn't see her from where I sat but she must have looked back at the man because he had moved to the edge of his seat and was saying "Mashy mashy, ana hawareeki, ha2oll leee .... ha2oll leee..." (No, fine, I'll show you, I'm going to tell... I'm going to tell...) and he silently spoke a name, accentuating his facial movements to compensate for the discretionary measure. He leaned back in his seat smiling, clearly thinking wicked thoughts. A moment later he was hunched over the pipe trying to fix himself a new 7agar, mumbling as he did so.

The new bowl was in full smoking swing and the man from Aswan had his head resting on the wall behind him and the pipe's brass bit glued to his lips. He produced an old Siemens mobile from his jacket pocket, punched some numbers and held the phone to his ear. "Aywa... ba2ollak... ba2ollak... isma3ni bas... ba2ollak... ya 3am istanna bas, 2ollaha... 2ollaha... bos bos 2ollaha bas 'we7yat khaltik Magda, el wel3a elli wa22a3teeha di 7atedfa3i tamanha ghaali,' mashi? 'We7yat. Khaltik. Magda. El wel3a elli wa22a3teeha di 7atedfa3i tamanha ghaaaali,' bas keda... heyya 3arfa... yalla salam." (Yeah, listen... listen... hold on a sec, just listen... will you just fuckin listen to me... yeah, tell her she's going to pay dearly for spilling that tobacco, ok? She knows what it's about... yeah, talk to you later.) He put the phone on the table and shuffled in his seat, smiling again.

Some minutes passed and our food was not yet ready. I sat motionless, having forgotten to bring a newspaper and followed the bustle instead, the scene of which felt all the more special because it was a Thursday night. Nothing was different, but the spring in people's steps and alley's air and sounds all mysteriously smacked of leisure. It felt good to fein coyness about Thursday night, to be alone in this ahwa and not out worrying with the city's clubbing classes.

The girl returned and walked up to the man from Aswan and stood intimidatingly close to his shisha. The pipe remained on his lips and his head remained on the wall. He lifted his eyes and when they met hers she pointed towards his face with an aggressively arched wrist. She bellowed, from the gut: "Inta mateshtekeneesh le7ad! Ana maleesh 7ad wa-leyy amri hena teshtekeeni 3ando, fahim?! Lamma t3ooz te2ool 7aga t2olhali ana, mateshtekeneesh le7ad!" (Don't you be reporting me to anyone! I'm responsible for myself here, got it?! If you have something to say you say it to me!). The man didn't budge and simply took longer pulls from his pipe, his face sagging with forced aloofness and his eyes locked on something distant. The girl walked off and the man lay the pipe across his lap and leaned forward to rearrange his ashy dying coals.

Om Dahab's teenage son emerged from nowhere and joined the man from Aswan, plying him with idle talk and a dumb grin. The girl returned and hurriedly implored the man, "hat el mobile bas a-ren 3ala 7ad." (Give me the mobile, I need to give somene a missed call.) Motionless, the man responded "La2." (No.)
"Hato bas." (Just give it to me.)
"Ah." (Yes.)
"Tab we7yat ommi la2." (On my mother's life I'm not giving it to you.)

Om Dahab's son guffawed and waved is hand in the girl's face, saying "Shayfa? 2al 'we7yat ommi' khalaas!" (See, he swore by his mother's life, forget about it!). The girl turned fast and wacked the boy on his chest with the back of her hand, shouting "Wenta maalak yaud! Makottesh goz OMMI?!" (It's none of your business! And who the fuck are you, my stepfather?!"

I eventually got my ma7shi (to go) and the man from Aswan got his (in house). I ate it straight from the styrofoam plate with washed hands, alone in a dimly lit living room. It was good, but, truth be said, not humbling brothy good. Just good--moist, spicy and dense. As many good things tend to be.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Hit of Crack for Egypt

Suzanne kissed Mohammed and she and Nazif waved their flags. I had been going nuts on the reload button, forced to follow the game on Filgoal.com because we don’t get the terrestrial stations or ART at home in Alex. Extra time had neared its end and I couldn’t bear not seeing the action so I threw on a jacket and ran to the supermarket downstairs. As I approached I heard noise and saw the cashier and an older patron do arthritic jumping-jacks in the middle of the shop, their eyes fixed to the TV screen perched atop the Fairuz fridge, the cashier shouting “Khalas khelset! Khelset keda khalas!” (It’s over, it’s all over!) I lept in and looked to the screen, only to see Abo Treika dash past the goal, his arms spread in jubilation, a mild roar emanating from inside the TV and from everywhere around us.
The cameras switched to a cascading choppy sea of red, black and white, the throngs at the stadium writhing, leaping and waving in celebration. “Da rez2 el nas el ghalaaba dol elli raa7o el stad… 3ashan mayrawwa7oosh ma2horeen.” (This is all the bounty of those poor folk who went to the stadium, so they wouldn’t go home sad.)
The old man responded “Ya 3am dol khanafes Masr, dil taskara bi toltomeet geneih. El naas barra fil shaware3. Di gamaheer sakka ya raagel.” (What are you talking about? These are Egypt’s hippie-kids/brats, the tickets cost 300 pounds. The people are out on the streets, not in there. These fans suck.)
A middle-aged woman entered the shop; she might have been a maid or a bawwab’s wife, judging by her dress and demeanor. She was holding a pack of Chipsy, asking the cashier whether it was spicy, “7arraa2 da? Ma2darsh akhod 7arraa2. 3andak eih mish 7arraa2? Ma2darsh akol ay 7aga 7arra2a…” She settled on a packet and paid and as she walked out she asked “3amalna eih?” (How did we do?). “Kesebna,” said the cashier (we won). “El 7amdullah,” she replied, “wel sood kesbo 7aga?” (and did the blacks win anything?). “No,” said the cashier. “El 7amdolla ya Rab,” she said, walking off (praise be to God).
I looked at the cashier who was now back behind the counter and he chuckled. The old man was watching the TV, following the celebrations taking place on and around the pitch. It was Al Jazeera and they were interviewing Abo Treika and a teary-eyed assistant coach who’d carried the African cup as a player many years ago. The cashier amusedly said ‘did you hear what she said, she asked if the blacks won anything and when I told her no she say el 7amdollah ya Rab.’ The old man shook his head once and kept his eyes on the TV while the cashier leaned over to pick up a mobile that had just beeped with a message alert.
“Mobinil ba3etlak resaala. Bet2ool mabrook lemasr,” he said, with an ain’t-that-nice but also a if-it-isn't-frickin-Mobinil smirk (Mobinil sent you a message, it says Congratulations Egypt). “Rodd 3aleih we2ollo Allah yebarek feek. We kheff 3aleina fel 7esaab shwayya.” (Reply and tell him congratulations indeed… and tell him to go easy on us with the bills.”
I was resting on the counter, scribbling dialogue into a little notebook with the cashier’s pen. “Inta btekteb el natayeg?” he asked (are you writing the results?). I wasn’t, and I wasn’t prepared enough to lie or play along, so I said a simple no, finished writing the sentence and put away the notebook. I couldn’t just tell him that I’d been recording snippets of conversation, that I was writing about him. I pointed to the TV and mentioned how funny it was that Egyptians were celebrating everywhere. (Al Jazeera had three little windows onscreen with live feeds of street scenes from Cairo, Doha and Alex.) The cashier nodded, concurring with a toneless “aah”. It was clear from the slight pinch of his lower eyelids that he was unconvinced by my words and bit jarred. Nobody likes a voyeur, but the severely afflicted rarely care. Shame is a better deterrent.
Presence, as in feeling really present, is generally a good thing. Presence is lucidity, connectedness, “eternity in an instant” and an overall freshness of being. The football these past two weeks made me feel very present on more than one occasion. Or, more precisely, it made for a present-ness outside of me that I saw, felt and eventually connected to. It was like the entire country had come out for a debutantes’ ball, like everyone had crawled out of their little dens and stepped wholly into something that was wholly public, and that this new public realm—the stadium, the forecasting, the gossip, the flag and hat sellers, the TV ads, the merchandising and the names and faces of our players—belonged to everyone and was knowable to everyone. We were all somewhere together, somewhere new, somewhere exciting and glorious, and then we won. And as we nurse the throats that we scoured with all the chanting and cheering and honking and waving, there remains an unsatisfactory aftertaste of proverbial wafers.
Any occasion to congratulate strangers is nice. But what does it mean to congratulate, and why are we so happy? Our team isn’t really that good, at the end of the day. Granted, they truly did work hard and for that they deserve much praise indeed. But what does that have to do with us, the Egyptians? We haven’t actually earned much; it could have been any other team, any one of the many teams that played better than we did. But there is no justice in football, especially when the refereeing is such shit as was the case in this tournament. Our joy does not match our ‘achievement’. Instead, it stands on a crust-like title(s)—Winner of the African Cup, Guardian Uncle of Arabia, Land of the Pharaohs. Of course, loving and getting excited for one’s team is integral to football, and I, for one, totally relate to that. But is it not tragic, the hollowness of this rampant national joy? This is to say nothing of the knee-jerk (situational) appreciation for the president and for all things State, or of the note-worthy, if not all-out embarrassing contrast between our own painted-cheek, flag-waving, co-ed mobs and those of Lebanon’s cedar revolution. Would so many Egyptians speak out together with such vigor for such a cause as justice or democracy? Because only then would this sweet break from the shittiness of things be truly welcome. Till then, we would do well to confront ourselves politely and let our disapproval simmer. Excuse this. Who am I kidding? Doom is nigh and salvation lies in the details, of which there are plenty. Forget Us for now, wa a3oozobelLah men kelmet Me.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Girl's Back Yakhooya