Monday, November 27, 2006
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Drunk Driver of a Donkey-Drawn Fruit Cart
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.
Monday, November 13, 2006
On Saturday I was downtown with a friend and took a taxi to Ramsis to catch a train to Alex, and shortly after getting into the back seat I noticed what you see in the picture above. My first response was disapproval. We are of the foot-phobic cultures and it is deeply ingrained in our minds, beyond the reach of our intellect, that the soles of feet should neither be on things nor face them. Even if I personally am not so bothered by the forays of feet beyond their common uses or spaces, I am still prone to expecting that others should be, or at least that they acknowledge the general public’s (which might as well be no one) position on the matter. My feelings then shifted to appreciation, within the same framework nonetheless. The perceived valuing of comfort over notions of propriety (traditional not bourgeois) indicated the sort of freedom of spirit that always leaves a pleasant feeling when detected in the trace of another person. What’s more, this wasn’t just someone who put his, or her (better still), feet up in the back of taxi, relaxing care-free, but someone with extremely dusty feet to begin with. Feet dusty to the point of resisting the moisture typically produced by foot-slipper contact. I remembered the classic Disney cartoon Snow White, the scene where she prepares a pie and friendly birds hop in and decorate the pie’s surface with choreographed little footprints. Flour was involved, and the white powder surface of the prints before me on the back of the chair reminisced of that. I though it might be plaster—a construction worker. Look at the prints and see if you can tell by their form how the person was sitting. Notice how there’s no smudging or indication of movement.
The taxi driver told the story of a money-loving old ahwa owner who was scammed into paying 100,000 pounds for a wolf. It was an elaborate scheme, involving several people and actual exchanges of several thousands of pounds, all designed to trick the ahwa owner into seeking to buy the wolf himself to sell to khawagas . He had been tricked into believing they come and pay big money for local wolves to sell back in Europe for up to 150,000 Euros
*'3am el 7ag' is a little bit more reverent and affectionate than 'old man' but is just as informal.