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Gayyash Al 'Aatifa

Monday, January 30, 2006

Sinai Solar Plexus

Microprofile #6

"I won't call them 3arab, 3iraqis or Muslims until they start acting like it. Until then they're A-rabs, I-raqis and Moslems."
- Nuri F.
Gifted Maadi love poet and notorious discursive thug; American master of Egyptian bedaanisms, Egyptian champion of the personal space cause; connoisseur of the popular and the posh in food, etc.

Monday, January 23, 2006


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

حسين التافه

Monrovia, April 14th 1980

One of these men paid for my education, took me fishing and taught me the words ekhras, etreze3, etfa7 and etkhemed.

Those Fake Bedouins Again

Cold Shoulder

Sunday, January 15, 2006

El 3eed Far7a, Hei! Heiii!

(3 encounters with children, Wa2fa Monday, Slaughter Tuesday)


K and I were heading for Maadi on Monday around lunchtime when, after seeing the big billboard on the Moneeb bridge, we decided (like sheep) to hit Carrefour instead. That neither of us had been to that one was a good enough reason to cancel plans for a lavish lunch at Dragon House on road 9. So we went to Carrefour and had lousy oily food at the food court, bumped into our friend 3emeira (lapsed student of Japanese literature we'd met and partied with in Tokyo) and weaved in and out of shops, giggling as we poked at whatever products struck our fancy.

I was in the Adidas shop by the hat and cap rack trying on gloves when I noticed this little kid inching towards me. "Law sama7t...law sama7t..." (excuse me) he said feebly, like he was about to tell me he was lost. I looked at him, not quite sure whether to smile like I do with adults or to affect some cool maternal smirk instead. "Howwa fee T-shirt Reyal Madreed 3ala ma2aasi?" (Is there a Real Madrid jersey that's my size?)

In my mind I thought "howwa mabda2eyyan fil ghaaleb mafeesh..." (well there probably isn't...). This kid was tiny and it was funny imagining him try to modify one of those little team jerseys that have suction cups and stick to car windows. Awkward as I am, I responded with a gentle "bas ana mish bashtaghal hena," (but I don't work here), only to be met with extreme stillness and a look of suspended despair. "Istanna," I said (wait), and looked up. There was a young guy running across the shop without lifting his feet from the ground, swinging a shoe-box back and forth as he ran. "Law sama7t!" I called out, and when the guy looked over I pointed to the kid then turned to the kid and told him "roo7 es2al da" (go ask that guy).

The kid walked over and stood beside the guy who was now noisily disemboweling a fresh shoe for a seated middle-aged woman. Ignored, the kid persited, "Law sama7t, fee T-shirt Reyal Madreed 3ala ma2aasi?" Gada3 yala, ew3a tseebo.


Driving back to Haram with K, we took a left off of 'Ba7r el A3zam and dove into 3omraneyya. There were few cars and we were driving slow. Pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes and animals littered the way as usual and there was no rush. We approached the flyover that would take us to Ter3et el 3omraneyya and about twenty meters before it there were three small scruffy-looking girls on the left side of the road waiting to cross. They looked like they were six or seven but of course they could have been fifteen, what with the malnutrition thing.

Their steps faltered as we slowed to a smooth halt. They began to cross and the one nearest to us was looking at me and shaking her hand back and forth in my direction, fingertips and thumb all touching, making a tulip shape, as if gesturing 'wait'. I could see that she was saying "ya kalb" (you dog) and when I rolled down my window I heard as much. She walked with aggressive slowness, waving her hand as she continued, "ya kalb ya ebn el kalb ya 7ayawaan ya ebn el kalb..." (you piece of shit son of a bitch animal son of a bitch...)

K was cracking up and I was enraged. I frantically rolled down my window and stuck my mouth out, shouting "beteshtemi leih ya 7ayawaana ya m3afenna ya sghannan-anti?!" (why are you swearing you little piece of shit?) She looked back and gave a snarling frowning tongue-out grimace and, with arms horizontal bellydancer-style, she shook her hips once, twice, before giving me her back, no doubt sharing with her friends another "ebn el kalb" and more obscenities.


K's brother (soon to be microprofiled) has a flat in the same building where K lives with his mother on Fatma Roushdy street (it connects Share3 el Haram to Khatem el Morsaleen). The flat had done well over the years, serving as a Shabab R&R Center par excellence, with its Ping-Pong table, fridge, liveable rooms, DVD player, kicking sound system and a key-locked little cupboard always rich with various nice things. I'd been bumming there for a longish while before I (recently) moved to my current place and I was back for Sunday and Monday night because my flat was being fumigated.

The virtuous teet teet of N's SMS had me up at 0650, Tuesday morning. I washed, prayed, had a yoghurt, took some chest medicine and donned my scarf and shoes before heading for the neighborhood mosque nearby. I stepped out of the flat and found a groggy-looking 5 year old (middle class...probably better fed...easier age estimation) standing bundled up beside the elevator door. I said "Koll sana winta tayyeb". His response was slurred and looked painful. A tall, big-headed moustachioed man (presumably the kid's father) emerged from the flat at the other end of the hall. I said "Saba7 el kheir, koll sana w 7adretak tayyeb," (good morning, happy Eid). He said "3aleikom el salam wa ra7matullah, koll sana winta tayyeb". Rabbena yehdeeni, I thought to myself. We descended in silence.

After the prayer I walked back to the building and decided to take the stairs. When I got to my floor I found the little kid standing by the elevator again, this time looking much more animated. He was struggling with a toy gun and whimpered as he fiddled with it, all agitated. He turned to me and said "Law sama7t ya 3ammo momken te3ammarly el mosaddas?" (can you please load the gun for me?) I took the gun and pulled back the top part till I heard a click. It felt really good and for a second I wondered what would happen if I just ran off with the gun and played with it for a while and brought it back later. (There are/were kids who actually do that.)

I handed back the loaded gun and the kid let out a gurgly sinister chuckle that seem to originate in his notably large gut. He raised his arm and pointed the pistol at my face and said "ana hamawwetak, pchew pchew pchew..." (I'm going to kill you, bang bang bang...) and stuck the gun-barrel to my chin with each pretend shot. Shit. I like guns when I hold them but really hate them when others do. I thought it was likely that some idiot had given this kid one of those plastic pellet-firing pistols for Eid and the prospect of his firing a pellet into my eye or my nostril was making me very uncomfortable. I pushed the gun away and said "la2 la2 balash t7ot el mosadas fwesh 7ad" (no no, don't point the gun at someone's face), not letting go of the gun till he desisted.

There was a moment of silence and before I could turn to put my key to the door, the kid looked up with droopy eyelids and a wide toothless smile and asked "Sallet-ha?" (Did you pray it?)
"Aah, Sallet-ha." (Yes, I prayed it)
"Gameela," he said (it's beautiful), shaking his head in a it's-really-something-isn't-it way.
"Aah, gameela tab3an," (Yes, it truly is)
"Bass khallooha za7ma," he added, squinting with nostalgic disapproval. (But they've let it get all crowded)
"Bas ana byethayya2li kanet dayman za7ma. Tab mal gom3a bteb2a za7ma bardo." (I think it's always been crowded...look at Friday prayers, they're always crowded.)
"Maho koll yom za7ma," he said, flicking his head in a to-hell-with-it gesture (every frickin day it's crowded), "welly byeshtaghal byeshtaghal, welly bya3mel bya3mel, wahei mashya..." (and whoever's working works and whoever's doing does, and I guess it just goes on..."

The kid spoke with the kind of aloofness and muffled disgust one might expect of very old and very disgruntled cab drivers in very rickety greasy cabs, not a relatively affluent young child on the first day of Eid. Also his gestures were eerily in sync with his words. I didn't quite know how to respond and couldn't at that moment forsee any benefit in standing there and talking to this kid. It could only get weirder. I nodded "Aah, aah," smilingly said Kol sana wenta tayyeb, and turned away to let myself into the flat. I didn't look out the peep-hole once inside, but I should have.

Setting aside the possibility of genius or sainthood, I'd say the kid didn't actually genuinely sense an ultimate sadness of things, contrary to what his words implied. It is a given rule of thumb for adults to mind their language and their mannerisms around young children. Of course, what the kid said wasn't rude or inappropriate as such, but his words, as well as the spirit with which he spoke them, seemed to come directly from adults. How much of that shit had he been exposed to, to make him fluent as he was? Having a young cousin myself, I've also learned about the dangers of giving young kids free access to fuckin tamseleyyat (TV soaps). Now those things are very much sources of rudeness and inappropriateness, as such (the tamseleyyat). Could it be that the presence of a stranger (me) is what triggered the kid's affectation? Or is he one of many compulsive little talk-the-talkers? There was this show on TV the year before last in Ramadan called 3aalam Doreid where the Syrian comedian Doreid La7am would interview these young children from different Arab countries. There was this one Egyptian girl who was, well, moseeba, radda7a, fedee7a, m3allema (catty and gangster-like). Aside from the things she actual revealed about herself and her family, her demeanor was incredible, in a bad way that is. Imagine Sherihan in her meanest, most coquettish role. This girl talked something like that.

Critics of schooling ask: does a child really have more to learn by spending half his day in a room with 20 (let alone 100... 3amaar ya Masr) of his peers than he does out in society where he engages with children as well as adults, adolescents and people of old age in a variety of situations? When he/she is removed from the world of adults in this way (school), and comes to see adults primarily as wielders of power, what does this do to his/her understanding of himself as an adult-in-the-making, as something he already is and needn't pretend to be? Critics also hold that contemporary schooling practices delay maturity. (Consider the eminent leaders and thinkers of pre-modern times and note the ages at which they began doing things of value...pick just about anyone ...and contrast that to the tepid existential crises of 22 year-old university graduates today...'who am I? what do I like? what am I good at? what is my role in the world?...tfoo!). I shudder to think of kids who've gotten so good at parroting the resolve of adulthood that they end up missing the very process that confers it. Imagine pandemic immaturity. Wilkam Wilkam.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Coptic Christmas Eid El Ad7a Taxi Taxi Taxi Taxi

(4 Taxi chats, Christmas Saturday through Wa2fa Monday)


"Mohandiseen!" The Fiat 128 leaned forward as it quickly slowed to a stop. I got in the front and said Salamo3aleiko. The driver was young, mid to late twenties and wore a white galabeyya and had fair, wavy, heavily gelled hair. He looked bedouin. He said 3aleikomelsalam and laughed, speeding his way to second gear, and then looked back towards me and said "Ma3lesh asli lessa taafi segaret 7asheesh add keda," (sorry, I just finished a hash joint this big) and he pointed to his right hand wrist while extending its index finger. "Eshta," I said, and produced a chuckle of camraderie.

"Maho lazem," he said (it's necessary), "asl fee nas fel donya di etkhala2et 3ashan te3aknenak; fee naas lazem ye2refook fe3eshtak." (there are people, you see, who were created just to give you a hard time.) "3andak masalan el sittaat..." (take women, for example)

I asked "El sitaat el 3awageez masalan? Elli by2oolo 'dana badfa3 keda kol marra'?" (You mean those old women who say 'I always pay this much'?"

"La2 khaales, da law 7ad kebeer mabahtammesh, ba3teber el tawseela 3amal kheir ya3ni, bastanaash mennaha floos. Ana azdi 3al sittaat min sen khamsa w talateen keda laghayet sen khamsa w arbe3een khamseen. Byeb2bo labat labat, yetalla3o 3einak. Tla2i wa7da 3ayzaak tewassalha bab el sha22a, tetalla3ha beltax el sellem. Wetkoon eih, medakhalaak 7awaari gowwa 7awaari, to3odlak rob3 sa3a mashy bdahrak 3ashan tetla3 mennaha." (Not at all, I don't worry about money with old people, I see it more as an act of kindness. I'm talking about women aged thirty five to forty five, fifty...man, those ones'll really give you a hard time. They expect you to drive them right to their apartment door. And that's after she's taken you through winding alleys so tight it takes you spend a quarter of an hour backing out of them...in reverse!)

I chuckled some more, trying to cheer on his rant.

"Aah ya 3am, 3ashan tet3aamel ma3al nas di lazem tekoon kwayyes, ana maba7ebbesh a7rem nafsi men 7aga abadan, a7eb ana dayman akoon kwayyes," he said, clearly getting off on the decadent zaniness of his words (Yeah, man, to deal with these people you have to be doing ok. I don't like to deprive myself of anything, I like to be doing ok all the time.)

He started laughing. "Bakallemak gad, ennaharda segaret 7asheesh, law mish mawgood momken aroo7 darebly wa7det tamanya fel meyya, aw 7atta aroo7 wagebly men 3and el ashwal rob3 abyad keda yzabbatni el leil kollo. Keda ya3ni." (I'm serious, today it's a hash joint, if not then maybe I'll go have me an eight percent [high alcohol beer], or ever pop into the Ashwal's [popular liquor shop called Bazaar el Ashwal, Lefty's Bazaar, on Sudan street]
and get a quarter litre bottle [of Zebiba] and be set for the whole night. That kind of thing.)


My brother took a cab from Korba to somewhere in Marghani. The driver looked like he was in his forties and was hunched over the steering wheel and mumbling to himself for a few while before he turned to my brother and said "ana lessa mala2etsh el shanta." (I still haven't found the bag.)

"Shantet eih?" (What bag?)
"El Shanta." (The bag.)
"Ya3ni shantet eih ya3ni?" (What bag are you talking about?)
"Shantet el Floos." (The money bag.)
My brother laughed.
"We 3amel 7esabak 3ala kam?" (And how much are you planning for?)
"Melyon 7elw." (A million would be ok.)
My brother laughed again, and the driver interrupted, "bas enta 3aref melyon eh?" (do you know a million what, though?)
More laughter.

My brother got out and gave the guy a couple of pounds extra. The guy leaned towards the window and said, "3ala fekra, ana lamma ala2i-l-shanta… 7a3od khamas tiyam... barakkeb nas bebalash," (By the way, when I find the bag I’ll go for five days taking people round for free). And then he raised an open palm showing five fingers, emphasizing his promise.


I got in a cab downtown around midnight and headed for Haram. We took Tahrir street and eventually got onto Sudan. We were going fast and somewhere near Cairo University there was a donkey cart, tottering against the flow traffic. The driver kept his speed and only swerved at the last second, the cart just a hair’s width from my side of the cab. I gasped with pursed lips and made an alarmed hiss as we brushed past.

The driver, who looked in his mid twenties, told me not to worry. I said ok, but told him that we’d gotten pretty close to the donkey cart and that it was only natural that I’d jump like that. He agreed. I then volunteered some trivia:

“Bas enta 3aref, by2oolo en el ensan howwal 7ayawaan el barri el wa7eed elli lamma byetkhadd byesh-ha2 keda. We by2oolo enn da wa7ed mil dala2el 3ala ennena aslan tarkebetna barr-ma2eyya, en el ensan 3ando momayazat keteer betkhaleeh ye3eesh fe bee2a maa2eyya, we mish bas barreya.” (You know, they say man is the only land mammal that gasps when surprised, and that it’s one indicator that we have some amphibious qualities and that we’re particularly well-suited to aquatic environments, not just terrestrial ones.)

The driver nodded with a confused look on his face and let out a few disingenuous-sounding grunts of approval. He said “Ana… mish 3aref, int-aslak… itaghfarullah ya3ni bet2ool el ensaan el 7ayawan el wa7eed we istaghfarullah barr-maa2i we 7ayawanaat barreya w… mish 3aref…”

Shit. Now I’m no proponent of Darwinism, but I do think it’s cool to conceive of ourselves (humans) as the primates and land mammals that we happen to be, if only to better understand some of our physiological characteristics. I’d just been trying to share some Aquatic Ape Theory bits with the driver. Die-hard proponents (who tend to be die-hard evolutionists, I imagine) claim that there is evidence to support the claim that a major portion of man’s evolution happened 3al blaaj, on riverbanks, by lakes and around tide-pools, and that there’s all sorts of fun evidence to support his being adapted to such environments (best swimming land mammal, water-savvy infants, the gasping thing, etc…Google it and check it out). Me, I just like being in the water and enjoy fancying myself an amphibious being, and so it can only be expected that I’ll eventually bring up these speculations with strangers. In any case, there was work to be done.

“La ya 3am, ana mish ba2ool el ensaan 7ayawan, ana azdi ya3ni en min demn el makhlo2aat elli teshbehlena shwayya wel bee2a bta3et-ha orayyeba min beta3etna, zay el orood masalan, maho edeina shabah edein el orood we fee 7agat moshtaraka benna w benhom, 3adi ya3ni. Fa min demn el 7ayawanaat di el insaan 3ando shwayyet 7agat betmayyezo feta3amlo ma3al mayya. Ya3ni fekret en el wa7ed yesh-ha2 lamma yetkhadd di…fee wa7ed eqtara7 en yemken kel ensaan kan et3awwed yehrab mil 7ayawanat el moftaresa aw men a3daa2o weyeghtas aw yestakhaba fil mayya masalan…fasa3et-ha kan yeb2a monaseb enn el khadda tkhalleeh yakhod nafas kibeer yegahhezo lel ghats 3ala tool. Masalan ya3ni…di nazareyaat kollaha.” (No wait, I’m not saying man’s an animal, just that, compared to other creatures that have similar features [like monkeys for example, our hands are like theirs and we have a lot in common, it’s no big deal], he has an advantage when it comes to water. Take this whole gasping thing… there’s this theory that gasping makes humans better prepared for an aquatic escape from land predators.)

The guy went on to recite the traditionally understood differences between humans, animals and angels (desire plus intellect, desire only, intellect only). His tone was one of you-do-know-this-is-the-case-of-course. I nodded and was glad the situation was settled, if still a bit tickled at the extent to which my initial statement seemed to take him by surprise.

We got to share3 Faisal and the driver turned to face me with a curious smile, asking what I’d studied. I told him economics but also that I didn’t think it had much to do with how I thought or what I was into. He said he felt the same, that he’d studied commerce at some institute (ma3had) but that he’d dropped out. I asked him why and he said so he could get married. I said nice and laughed a sinister laugh to show him support and to spite the commerce institute he’d given his back to. He shone with confidence and had a hell-yeah! look on his face, adding that it was his childhood sweetheart he’d married too, that he’d done it, that he’d gotten the nicest deal possible. I asked if they had a baby yet and he nodded with glee, “Laila”, and raised his hands to demonstrate her size. She was as tall as a 2 litre Pepsi bottle. I told him that marriage seemed to make a lot of my friends feel more centered. He nodded and made of-course sounds, but after we made the U-turn on Haram and prepared to take the right at KFC, he shook his head and said that he was upset, that there was something wrong, that he was, at the end of the day, still the same. I asked him what he meant.

“Modmen 7asheesh.” (Hashish addict.)
“La ya sheikh. Eih ba2a, mate3rafsh teftar men gheiro ba2a w mabto3odsh sa3tein 3ala ba3dohom min gheir mateshrab w keda? Mintayyil khales ya3ni?” (Shit, man. So what, you need it to start your day and you can’t go a couple of hours without smoking? Are you having a really hard time with it?)
“La mish awi keda, bashrab bileil, bas koll yom wi kteer. Maba2darsh, goz2 mennaha shoghl bardo, mabab2aash taye2 ata3amal ma3 7ad wana faye2 sa3at.” (No it’s not that bad, I just smoke at night, but daily and intensively. I have a hard time dealing with customers sometimes if I’m just sober.)
“Bas mish moseeba ya3ni el 7asheesh, manta law khafeft momken yeb2a zareef ya3ni yekhaleek tendamig aktar ma3a mratak we bentak we bta3. Ana faker kam marra zaman rege3t el beit wana mastool we a3adt ma3 ommi we kan 3andi 7anaan kiteer awi wi heyya kat 7assa beeh we da kan mofeed awi le3elaqetna. Tab3an heyya makatsh bteb2a 3arfa en ana m7ashish bas oltelha men orayyeb we maze3letsh awi. Oltelha bardo en kol 7ad fiskendereyya by-7ashish w 3adi ya3ni, da ibn tant folan we ibn uncle folan wel kabtin folan we 3am folan, kollohom by7ashisho, 3aadi ya3ni.” (It’s not such a big deal, hashish. If you go easy it can be ok, it could be nice for your relationship with your wife or your daughter. I remember a few times long ago when I came home stoned and sat and chilled out with my mom. I had a lot of affection in me and she could feel it and I think it was really good for our relationship. Of course, at the time she didn’t know I was stoned, I told her about it later, and she didn’t get to upset about it. I also told her that everyone in Alex smokes, uncle so-and-so’s son and tante so-and-so’s son and this guy and that guy, and that it wasn’t such a big deal.)

We arrived at my destination and the driver pulled over.

“Hahaha…la, el 7ashish mo2adab bardo, ma2olnash 7aga. Mish zay el kemya masalan. El kemya ellet adab. Bas ana delwa2ti 3andi bent soghayara we 3ayz ab2a mawgood ma3aaha, we law afdal 3al 7al el ana fee da, mish 7atawwil… ana el 7ashish mebawwazli el se77a khaales.” (No, hashish is polite, unlike pharmaceuticals, they’re impolite. No man, I have a daughter and I want to be there for her and if I stay like this I won’t be here for long…it’s really ruining my health.)
“Tab di moshkela. 7ata3mel eih? 3andak riyaada kont btel3abha masalan, momken tekhaleek matedrabsh kteer we fnafs el wa2t tragga3lak se77etak shwayya?” (That’s serious, man. Don’t you have like a sport or something you could get back into that’ll make you smoke less and get you back in shape?)
“Riyaada, la mafeesh riyaada…bas baneek koll yom,” he said, laughing (No, I don’t have any sports, but I do have sex every day,), “wema2darsh aneek aktar men keda 3ashan khaater a2allel 7ashish. Rabbena ysahhil ya 3am, we koll sana winta tayyeb.” (And I can’t be having more sex just get myself to smoke less. Whatever man, it’s all good. Koll sana winta tayyib.)

I got out and wished the guy well as I handed him the cab fare. He thanked me and told me where I could find him if I ever needed anything or if I wanted to have a smoke. Koll sana winta tayyeb, I said, and he drove off waving goodbye.


Got into a cab Sunday evening and headed to share3 Shehab from downtown. I soon started telling the driver about what happened on the train from Alex just an hour before. I had boarded the 7pm train without a ticket. As usual, I waited till everyone got on before looking for empty seats. I found a place and took it and waited anxiously for the train to depart, hoping noone would come to (rightfully) claim my seat. A couple came and took the empty seat next to me and when the conductor eventually passed by to check our tickets I was reading and he got distracted with the couple. He printed their tickets and gave them back their change and walked on. I thought cool, I get to ride for free. It had happened once before and felt great. The couple didn’t seem to notice that the conductor missed me, and I didn’t mention anything or act like anything was amiss.

They were speaking in Arabic and the guy turned and glanced at what I was reading. He was facing me slightly, and after—I think—he recognizeded the language on my pages to be English, he switched languages midsentence, inserting some idiom (I don’t remember what exactly but I think it was ‘for what it’s worth’ or ‘for better or for worse’). He was, in effect, speaking into my ear, and I wondered what would become of our newfound bond, a bond the both of us no doubt recognized and no doubt responded to with different forms of isti3baat. He spoke extra English to his girlfriend, and I spent the rest of the train ride making sure to utter no word of English in his vicinity. I masochistically reminded myself that I have been this guy before and probably will be again.

Incidentally, I didn’t tell the cab driver all this, I just told him about how I’d gotten on the train and that the conductor missed me and that after a while he walked by again, this time without the guy who worked the little ticket printer (who was actually a higher rank I think).

He didn’t seem to notice me and I had to decide whether to play it cool and relish the sneakiness factor that was creeping into my free ride, or call the man over and explain to him that I owed ticket money. I thought about how I was, at the end of the day, thankful for Sekak 7adeed Masr (Egyptian Railways) and how I was actually getting a decent service, and I felt it would be uncool of me to not pay for my ride. (Also, I think when it happened years ago I had much more to gain by saving the 30 or so pounds I did by not paying.)

So I raised my hand and said Law sama7t. The guy stopped and I explained the situation and he responded with perplexed looks and ambiguous statements, making the situation unnecessarily confusing and unpleasant. The guy said he’d have to go get my ticket from the big guy with the machine and that he’d get in trouble for having missed me the first time and I told him I was sorry but that I hadn’t paid and thought that I should. I asked him how much the ticket was and he said forty. I gave him forty and asked if I should wait for him to bring me my ticket. Again, there was more weirdness and confusion as he seemed to fumble with my request for a printed ticket in exchange for my money. I started losing my cool, thinking “matet3del wetkhallasni’ (why don’t you fuckin’ get on with it). Before he walked off, he paused, gave that stupid smirk that often precedes this question in such situations, and asked where I was from. Angry and regrettably having lost some self-restraint, I asked him whether this would affect the price of my ticket. He looked a bit confused and shaken about, just like the asshole in me had intended. I thought to make amends and quickly answered his question, telling him my neighborhood in Alex and following with a gentler ‘why’. He shook his head and said that it was nothing, that he just wanted to know, that maybe I lived near him. He spoke with surprise and seemed let down and hurt yet ultimately unperturbed as might a child. I said that I didn’t mean anything (3ady), that he should excuse me (lamo2akhza) and that we’re neighbors even though he hadn’t said where he was from (da7na graan). I felt like a real piece of shit for having been suspicious and impatient with this simple man. I said Kul sana winta tayeb awkwardly before leaning back into my seat to send him off. The couple beside me was out at the end of the carriage smoking with their Nescafe’s (the guy brought his own Nescafé Gold sachets and repeatedly over-enunciated the word Gold as he spoke to the beverage-cart man). I thought about how the ticket guy was “ya 3abeet ya ebn setteen a7ba, we Rabbena yostor” (either plain stupid or a real son of a bitch).

I considered the matter done and read continuously till about 15 minutes before arrival time, looking only out the window to rest my eyes and my brain every few pages. It seemed strange that the guy would take so long. Shit. I got up and went to the end of the carriage and asked the porter where to find him. I sped down three more carriages with no luck and realized we were close to the station and suddenly people started getting up and crowding the aisles. I panicked and shoved and apologized my way back, arriving at my seat and bags just as the train came to a halt under the big skylight ceiling at Ramses.

I immediately started explaining my situation to the couple, only to find the conductor walking by. I looked towards him and put forward empty palms as I shook my head, gesturing ‘what the fuck?’ He said “eh, el komsary magablaksh el taskara?’ (what, the porter didn’t brig you the ticket?). Er, no, he didn’t, where’s my ticket? “Magablaksh el taskara? Danaddet-halo, lazem eddaha lwa7ed ghalat” (He must have given it to the wrong guy). Dantal l-2ommak weldetak ghalat, I grumbled in my mind, fein mayeteen om eltaskara?

“Ana 3ayez taskara,” (I want a ticket), I said.
“Lazem ageblak el taskara ya3ni,” (do I need to get you the ticket?) he asked, putting the tip of his thumb to where is fingers meet his palm, hinting at the pettiness of so small a thing.
“Aah lazim.” (Yes you need to.) He started to look around, checking out the now empty seats around where we were standing, the conductor, myself and the couple, we were the last people in the carriage. I realized the conductor was looking for someone else’s ticket to give to me and knew he might project a ‘you need your ticket for travel reimbursement from work or something’ slant on the situation so I quickly intervened.
“La2 istanna, ana 3ayez taskarti ana.” (No, wait. I want my ticket.)
“Azdak eih sa3adtak?” (What do you mean?)
“Ana 3ayez taskarti ana, 7a2 el feloos elli eddet-haalak.” (I want the ticket that’s mine, the one I gave you money for.” This didn’t seem to register with him and his face remained in limbo.
The guy from the couple intervened, “La la la, da be3eed 3an elli fmokhak khaales. Ana 3aref inta azdak eih… bas mish hena sadda2ni, la2, hena el omoor mateb2ash zay manta faker, mate2la2sh.” (No no, its far from what you have in mind. I know what you’re thinking but no, trust me, it wouldn’t happen here, don’t worry.) Nice one. Thanks for casually stating that I suspected this man of ripping me off. I was hearing the guy and I wanted to believe him but the facts were all pointing elsewhere. Also this wasn’t the kind of situation where one takes vague sentimental bits of advice too seriously. In any case, he ruined it for me. The conductor picked up on what the guy was saying and rode the wave well and came crashing down on my head.
“Enta betfakkar fi eih bas,” he said (what are you thinking,), his face losing all naiveté and gaining all sarcasm as he took a step towards me and squeezed past, only looking back to add “danta Iskandarani 7atta,” (come on, you’re Alexandrian for God’s sake) before walking to the end of the carriage and through the door, out the train. I gathered my bags and said Kul sana winto tayebeen to the couple, genuinely hoping to end things with good festive spirit. I got off the train and worried myself with the task of getting home.

So I told the story to the driver and we identified some key issues. Actually I did all the identifying, and the analysis, and I even coerced him into providing reactions when he would have none. But he was a really friendly, kind-hearted guy and it was very soothing to whine to him, and whine like I was on speed, too. He didn’t seem to mind, or even care much either, which was great.

We got to Khan Younis street, parallel to Shehab. The driver stopped a couple of buildings down from the sketchy Commodore Hotel. He turned off his car engine and chuckled to himself. I said “Eih?”
“A7keelak ana 3an ser2a sa7.” (Let me tell you about a real theft.)

He told me how he was in Giza when he picked up this guy who asked to be taken somewhere past the Malek El Saleh tunnel. They go there and when they emerged from the tunnel the guy asked him to stop and back up to a side street they’d passed. The driver said he refused, telling the passenger he didn’t like to back up busy streets on principle. He said they argued for a while and the guy even got out to get change and paid him and got back in the car, insisting on the guy backing up. Eventually the driver conceded and twisted himself around to look out the back window, his hand anchored behind the passenger seat head rest. He arrived at the street and the guy said thank you and walked off. The driver took off and before he reached the next sidestreet he noticed something was wrong. His mobile wasn’t where he’d left it, between his steering wheel and the dashboard. He parked at the cab and got out and called his phone from a nearby koshk.

“Awya ya 3am, eih el 7ekaya, elli bye7sal?” (Ok man, what’s the deal, what’s going on?)
“Eih da howwanta? Tsadda2 ennak asra3 wa7ed yekallemni ba3deeha. Mafeesh 7ad byetessel 3ala tool keda. Fee sawwa2een beto3od saa3a, fee byo3odo yom kamel. Ana asli bafdal sayeb el sharee7a fel telefon laghayet masa7bo yettesel, 3ashan neb2a etkallemna bas kelmetein.” (Oh, it’s you. You know, you’re the quickest person to call back afterwards. Some drivers call an hour later, some take a whole day. I like to keep the SIM card in till the owner calls back, so we can talk a bit.)
“Wetsadda2 enta ba2a ennak aktar wa7ed eedo khafeefa ana shofto? Fashoof hana3mel eih delwa2ti?” (And you have the quickest hands I’ve ever seen. Ok so what are we going to do now?)
“Hana3mel eh? Mish hana3mel 7aga. Rabbena y3awwadhaalak yasta. Koll sana winta tayyib.” (What are we going to do? We’re not going to do anything, that’s what. Better luck next time,
man. Koll sana winta tayyib.)

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Made in Zift El Teen

I was in a stationery shop downtown waiting for photocopies when in walked a tall middle-aged man wearing a galabeyya and a 3emma. He asked the guy behind the counter "3andoko el 7aseb el 2aali bta3 el sanaweyya el 3amma da?" (Do you have that calculator they use in secondary school?)

The man pointed to a box on the shelf behind him and said "Ah, dah, sitta w 3eshreen geneih." (Yeah, this one, twenty six pounds.) It was a Casio FX 82 something something, I had similar one back in the day. Good stuff.

"Aaah," said the visitor, and with knee-jerk fataka (misinformed coy familiarity with esoteric knowledge) added in a perfectly semi-questioning tone, "Seeni da..." (Yeah...so it's Chinese, this one...)


There was a talk-show show on TV during Ramadan the year before last where they would host celebrities and stage these pranks, like having criminals storm the set or the host suffer a heart attack. One unlucky victim was the talented, alluring and gruff actress, Noha el Amrousy. They brought to the set this woman they presented as a Japanese advertising director who'd used footage of Amrousy in ads for funny products. I can't remember what but they were like rat poison and diapers, maybe, or something along those lines. Anyway, so Amrousy gets upset and starts flipping out on the host and on the woman and at some point says something like "Yaban eh di?! Danti matgeesh Taiwani 7atta!" (Japan Schmapan! [To even be made in] Taiwan is beyond you!)


About a week ago I was on an evening train to Alex working on my laptop (which actually was on my lap). I had a single seat on the right hand side of the carriage and I could see from the corner of my eye that the middle-aged man in the cheap suit seated across the aisle to my left was staring. I think I was writing an account of an event I'd witnessed and thought hey, if he can read this then good for him, he might even have comments for me. But he didn't, he just shifted in his seat, coughed occasionally and kept staring.

About 45 minutes into my typing (and distraction and Solitaire) session I felt a quick firm tap on my elbow. It was as if a little rubber-toothed snake had lunged and nipped at my pullover really fast, returning immediately to its, well, its seat across the aisle. I looked up at the seat in front of me and looked back down, not quite knowing how to respond. 3amalt 3abeet.

I then saw with the whole side of my eye a hand waving, reaching randomly in my direction, and heard my neighbor clear is throat and say uhm, uhm. So I turned to face him, smiling, of course. He squinted his eyes (again, with fataka, plus a forced look of seriousness and engrossement), pursed his lips and raised eyebrows, and pointed at my computer. "Bekam da," (how much is this?) he asked.

I took a deep breath and couldn't but remain silent with contemplative annoyance a few seconds longer than I would have liked. To be fair to myself, I was at a loss, somewhat, because I didn't know where to begin. I told him that my computer was old and that it had cost this much that many years ago and that he was asking the wrong question. So he repeated it "Aywa, bekam el laptop ya3ni?" (Ok, so how much is the laptop then?)

I said that there were different brands, some being more expensive than others. I started with the cheapest, I told him about HP and Compaq models and then about Toshiba and Dell ones and their prices. He was very focused and nodded slowly as I listed prices and ad-libbed (bullshitted) user profiles for each price range. I then told him that Sony laptops were the most expensive ones and they were considered the best and that they could cost up to twenty thousand pounds. The look on his face seemed to sharpen in proportion to the slickness of the laptop I was describing.

I was plodding along with my slapshod user profile for those high-end Sony's when the man lifted his hand to interrupt me. I stopped and he shifted anxiously in his seat, his face acquiring a look that said 'hold on a second, there's something I not quite clear on...'

"El Sony da..." (this Sony), he said, pausing as the hand pointing towards my computer bobbed repeatedly, as if the extent of his mental focus had put his motor skills on hold, "Yabani tab3an..." (is made in Japan, of course).