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Gayyash Al 'Aatifa

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Drunk Driver of a Donkey-Drawn Fruit Cart

Heading home an hour past midnight on Wednesday, I turned right off of Bab El Louq street (also known as Tahrir street) and onto Falaki, where midan El Falaki/Bab El Louq begins. Many shops were closed and the street had that calm late-night emptiness; there were still some cars, but it was better than in the morning (the road is flanked by a large produce market on its left and AUC on its right), but still not as nice as where I live now, at the other end of Falaki, by Mobtadayan street near the French Cultural Center. At night I can park my car anywhere. It's right beside the Ministries of Education and Health and Military Production and several other major government offices, so some mornings I find the car blocked in, and twice I've found it scratched badly, by other cars.

There's a traffic policeman who holds the intersection of Falaki and Safeya Zaghloul (the CiC road) which is where I often park. One morning several months ago I had gotten into the car and began to drive off when I heard "mamnoo3 hena yaskendereyya!" (not allowed here, Alexandria). I looked up and saw the policeman across the street perched on the sidewalk, pen in hand and with the citations booklet clearly visible. He stood with a foot-tapping gangster- or parent-like look of indignation. "Howa mamnoo3 a2of hena?" (Am I not allowed to park here?) I asked, with my head deferentially stuck out the window. "Tab3an mamnoo3, danta 3amalt moshkela kbeera..." (Of course it's prohibited, you've caused quite a problem, you know...) He said something else that, combined with his subtly farcical demeanor, hinted he was joking. I shouted back something just as insolent and over the top and such has been our rapport to this day. He addresses me like I've committed a major infraction and I respond like I own the country, like rules don't apply to me and that he can hit his head on the wall, as we say, and he pretends to let me off the hook out of sheer magnanimity. He does apply a real pressure, though, and I relent, giving him chewing gum or mints or mineral water or whatever small genuine treat I have in the car. I do so because on one hand it's his due but also because it seems to bring grace to an otherwise absurd relationship.

Last week the road was blocked, cars were double parked but that's the norm; something was wrong. It was around noon and the streets were crowded with government employees heading home (it seemed). There were people shouting and it turned out they were shouting at the policeman. They crowded around him as he walked, alternately shouting at and pleading with him, I didn't understand. People were shouting his name, drivers who knew him it seemed, but they also sounded very frustrated and helpless. The policeman was silent but clearly agitated, walking off, violently swinging his arm out of people's grasp, with an I've-made-up-my-mind air of rigidity and indifference. A woman came up and had a go at him, shouting her head off, he snapped at her and told her to 'go back to the car'. She returned to a seven-seater Peugot and complained to other middle-aged women in a heavy rural accent. I soon figured out that he had sneakily appropriated the key to that car and one of the men shouting at him was its driver. Things calmed down and I wanted to leave so I walked up to him and asked what was up. He said something to the effect that these people were idiots who didn't understand that there are laws. I told him not to let them go and that he was doing the right thing, in a show-no-mercy sort of tone. He responded 'wenta fakerni 7asebhom?' (what, you think I'm going to let them go?). I hadn't noticed his accent before. It was heavy and rural except more Se3eedi, more distant, easier somehow.

So, soon after I turned off of Bab El Louq street and onto Falaki the other night I noticed a fruit cart up ahead. The cart was yoked to a bright white donkey facing me and was large, at least a meter and a half across and on it was a big heap of light yellow oranges. Beside the donkey stood a small skinny old man wearing an uncommonly grubby galabeyya. He looked more like a mentally ill street person than a 3arbagy. The cart was parked (only half in the parking lane) in front of a neon-lit supermarket with a few men idling outside, they seemed to be associates of the shopkeeper. I stopped my car and waited for the old man to either come forward, back up or instruct me to do something. I waited and he wasn't moving so I stepped out and shouted "ya 7ag" (old man) and he didn't really respond, just moving erraticly within a 20cm radius about himself. First I thought he might be physically handicapped then I realised he was just extremely drunk. He motioned me to proceed and I shouted back telling him the space was too tight. He insisted, not seeming to understand what I was saying, so I told him that I was going to back up and that he should come forward and park in the empty space behind me. I got back in the car and started backing up. A middle-aged bystander discreetly said "khalli balak da sakran teena" (watch out, he's totally drunk). I told him I knew and asked the man what he thought the man had been drinking. The man shrugged his shoulders and wipe-slapped his palms in disapproval.

I had to drive a good twenty meters in reverse. I did so at roughly the same speed at which the man led the donkey pulling the cart. Twisted in my seat and facing the road behind me, all I could hear was the creaking of the cart's wooden wheels and a strange loud rhythmic hum. My mind must have registered it as a generator that had just turned on, and it took a moment before I consciously wondered what the sound was. By this point I had slowed to a halt and the old man was turning into the empty space and leading his donkey past me. The window was down and as he approached I realised it was him making the sound, which was somewhere between the moan of a man who's just suffered a severe blow to the chest, and the rolling stream-like mantras of Buddhist monks (to whom I mean no offense by this comparison).

I drove off, waving at bystanders, all chuckles at our bizzare collective encounter. I got to the police check point on Sheikh Rihan street and wondered whether they would give me a hard time, because sometimes they did and somtimes they didn't. I wondered if I should tell them there was a drunk 3arbagi blocking the street a block away. They'd mess him up for sure, I thought. I wondered what might lead such a man to get as drunk as he was, thinking how much more interesting it would be if this was rare for him, as opposed to him being a regular alcoholic. And I wondered where and what he drank; I couldn't stop imagining him to have downed straight gasoline.

3 Comments:

  • Incredibly, I parked at the exact same nasya, Safeyya Zaghlul / Falaki, at least 5 times during this month. But I never saw the policeman. Nor Gayyash. Not even a mallaki Eskendereyya. Just schoolgirls and mowazzafin. And my dirty white car.

    By Anonymous Sakakini Pacha, at Wed Dec 20, 07:18:00 PM GMT+2  

  • depends what time you park. i'm usually out between mid morning and night. i also have a white car. it used to be messy but i just did a major 3amra and plan to keep it neat. ba2et 3aroosa. menawwar el mante2a ya beh.

    By Anonymous gayyash, at Wed Dec 20, 11:03:00 PM GMT+2  

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