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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.


  • What does an aggressively arched wrist look like, exactly?

    And hey, I consider myself to be a good thing, and I'm far from dense...

    By Blogger Reformed Cynic, at Tue Feb 28, 04:03:00 AM GMT+2  

  • AAW: forearm inclined at 45 degree angle while the line from the wrist to the tip of the (pointing) index finger is flat.

    i hear you on the denseness thing. note that i did say 'most' things. watermelon, for example, is far from dense. so is souffle.

    By Blogger Gayyash, at Tue Feb 28, 10:57:00 AM GMT+2  

  • correction: i said 'many' not 'most' good things...

    By Blogger Gayyash, at Tue Feb 28, 11:15:00 AM GMT+2  

  • As great as ever, gayyash...

    By Anonymous Sakakini Pacha, at Thu Mar 09, 05:29:00 PM GMT+2  

  • mon-bey, da min zo2ak.

    By Blogger Gayyash, at Thu Mar 09, 06:13:00 PM GMT+2  

  • i am not so sure if i like the way you translate the arabic statements. I think you take away from them by using the flimsy translations. Put more effort into that area.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Mar 14, 10:24:00 PM GMT+2  

  • anon. i see what you're saying. on one hand it's quite difficult to carry over all the insinuations and connotations that come with colloquial slang, and i often bastas-hil. so in a sense i can simply put more effort into it. but on the other hand, i often have this strangely nationalistic sense that those who don't speak this tongue needn't be privy to its sweets. ya3ni bil baladi keda i sometimes just feel like keeping something extra for egyptian readers. don't ask why and don't hold it against me. i provide translations to begin with so people who don't speak arabic or egyptian can read the posts and understand them as well as those who can (speak...). so thanks for pointing this out. i will put in more effort. but if you find that i'm posting less then know that it's your fault :)

    By Blogger Gayyash, at Wed Mar 15, 01:31:00 PM GMT+2  

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