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
I sat and waited next to the man from
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.)
"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?!"