Qussa

Stories from Afar & Up Close

CONVERSATIONS UNLIKELY TO BE HAD IN THE NETHERLANDS, PT. 2

AN ENCORE

I'm having a cup of tea at an 'ahwa (coffeeshop) in Ismailiya. As expected, all other customers are Egyptian men.

The guy of the koshk next door starts cleaning the street, voicing his opinions on life and all it entails in no uncertain terms, entertaining all of us in the process. Until the 'ahwa owner comes out.

"Shut up, will you? The lady speaks Arabic!"

The koshk guy looks at me and asks in Arabic "Is that true?"
I nod.
"Do you speak Arabic?"
I nod.
"And you understand all the swear words I just used?"
I nod again. The 'ahwa bursts out in collective laughter.
"Alright," he says, "I better start swearing in Italian then!"

CONVERSATIONS UNLIKELY TO BE HAD IN THE NETHERLANDS

A PLAY IN THREE PARTS

Act I – At the clothing store
I’m trying on a fancy dress to wear to a wedding. The zipper (as always) is in the back, but the 16-year old salesgirl is there to help. It gets stuck, so a colleague of the same age comes over to help. Eventually there are three girls pulling and squeezing until it’s closed. After an approving look in the mirror, I try to open it on my own.

“No, no, just leave it, I’ll open it!”
“But I have to be able to open it myself, otherwise how am I going to put it on and take it off?”
“Just ask someone to close it for you.”
“I can’t, I… eh, live alone.”
“You… what? No, just ask anyone in the house to close it for you.”
“There is no one in my house. My flatmate travelled so I am alone.”
“There’s no one to close your dress.”
“No one.”
“No one?”
“No one.”

Salesgirl number one whispers to number two “there is no one in her house to close the zipper.” Salesgirl number two whispers to number three “she’s all alone, there’s no one to close the zipper.”

I turn around to find all three of them staring at me with a mix of pity and disbelief. No one in the house to close your dress, have you ever heard of that? I tell them I’ll ask the neighbor to do it. With a sigh of relief they sell me the dress.

***

Act II – In the women’s car of the metro
Rush hour on the metro, I’m standing in the women’s car where everyone is pressed up against each other. Only the short lady next to me keeps backing away, forcing space between our bodies that isn’t really available on such a packed train. Every few seconds I catch her looking at me, puzzled.
Suddenly she starts laughing.

“I thought you were a guy! Oh goodness, I really thought you were a man. It’s the hair, you know! You should go to another hairdresser, this one really did a bad job. I was convinced you were a man! There’s one in Mohandisseen, he’s really good, he’ll know how to fix it. Yeah, he’ll fix it. Haha! I can’t believe it, I was sure you are a guy!”

***

Act III – At the Sudanese restaurant
With a friend, hungry.

7.30pm
“Hi, we’d like one bamiya and two salata aswads please.”
“I’m sorry, there is no salata aswad at the moment.”
“You’re out completely or it’s currently being made?”
“It will take a long time to be ready.”
“How long?”
“About 30 minutes.”
“That’s ok, we’ll wait. We’ll have the bamiya now and the salata aswad later.”

8.30pm
“I’m not sure he remembers that we wanted salata aswad. Let’s check.”
“Hi, it’s been about an hour, do you think it will take much longer for the salata aswad to be ready?”
“Well… I wasn’t telling you anything wrong before… but it will be another 20 minutes or so.”
“Ok, no problem, we’ll wait”

9pm
“It’s been 30 minutes again. I’m going to the kitchen to ask.”
“Hi, we’re still waiting for our salata aswad… do you think it will be done soon?”
“Well… you know… it’s a bit different… just a bit.”
“Just a little bit longer, then?”
“A little bit, a little bit.”

9.25pm
“It’s been almost two hours since the first try… shall we ask once more?”

“I’m sorry, there is no salata aswad. But we have spinach, if you’d like?“

The Mediterranean is burning

I saw a movie – a documentary, actually.
It was called Fire at Sea.

(Which is just the name of a song.)

A little boy on the island of Lampedusa was feeling anxious.
He had a lazy eye and he threw up when the sea underneath his father’s fishing boat got too rough.
Less than 10 years old, but he didn’t have the manly qualities he felt he should have.
Though his slingshot never missed, he needed to stand on the pontoon during rough weather to train his legs.
And learn how to row.
“Everyone on Lampedusa knows how to fish.”

Meanwhile, we heard the dj playing melancholic love songs from mothers and wives for sons and husbands at sea.
Or stuck on land, when the storm whipped up the waves so high that no one would go into the water.
They were in the kitchen preparing the food.

In between were the calls for help from the ships arriving from Libya.
As if they were normal features of daily life.
They are. They have become a regular part of life.
Eighty, one hundred and fifty, two hundred and forty people on a ship.
Divided in layers according to price, with no air at the bottom and only some on in the middle.
The ship just floats, no petrol no steering wheel no direction no possibility.
Out at sea.

I saw the coast guard get to a ship in time.
Wobbly legs going from the wooden vessel into the rubber speedboat onto the big ship.
Emergency blankets.
Registration.
Picture taking.
Numbering.
Organizing.
“There’s one with chicken pox, he’s coming on board last!”
A friendly pat on the back, almost unnoticed.

I can tell the Eritreans from the West Africans from the Syrians and I wonder why I am looking at them this way.

I saw the coast guard get to a ship too late.
Dehydrated bodies are pulled out first, handed over by arms and legs still strong enough.
They fall into the rubber boat as if life has left them already.
Only breath is left of them.
Maybe a heartbeat.
I can’t tell.
The others climb out by themselves until the boat is empty.
It’s just a metal hull now, surrounded by waves, until the camera moves inside.

Arms.
Legs.
Hips.
Necks.
Shoulders.
Wrists.
Ankles.

We don’t see whole people, only parts.
No faces.
Stacked together in death like they were in the dream that got them in this ship.
They died like this.

Maybe we should see their faces to know who we did this to.

Maybe it is a last act of dignity to not expose them in their last suffering.


Once on the ship the men sit still and the women cry openly.

Once on the island, the men play football and the women watch.
The machine continues -
Numbering.
Registering.
Photographing.
Waiting.

The little boy with the slingshot has a patch on his eye and trouble breathing.
The doctor listens to his lungs and heart and says he will be fine.
I’m not sure the little boy believes him.

There is a Fire at Sea.
The Mediterranean is burning.
 

Some very peculiar logic

At the Vodafone store, to buy my pre-paid internet bundle for next month.

 

Me: Please remind me what packages you have, it’s something like 3GB or 7GB per month, right?

Employee: Yes, but all the prices have gone up. So we have the 60 EGP* bundle which is now 65 EGP and the 100 EGP bundle which is now 110 EGP.

Me:   You mean the 3GB bundle is now 65 EGP and the 7GB bundle is 110 EGP?

Employee: No, the 60 EGP bundle is now 65 EGP and the 100 EGP bundle is now 110 EGP.

Me: Uh, ok… I’ll have the 7GB bundle, as usual.

Employee: You mean the 100 EGP bundle.

Me: … ok. I’ll have the 100 EGP bundle.

Employee: Great! One 100 EGP bundle. That’ll be 110 EGP, please.




*EGP = Egyptian Pound

Writing about Egypt

It’s been almost three years since I moved to Egypt, and I still can’t write about it like I used to write about Lebanon. When living in Beirut, it felt like life just kept presenting me with scenes, images, stories that could represent bigger things that were going on in the country. I could also write about little things that were not necessarily representative, but at least in some ways typical or extreme versions of usual occurrences. In Egypt, I hesitate to take anything that happens and write it up to highlight a bigger underlying issue. I live my daily life in Cairo, I encounter people and situations like I would anywhere else, and yet I come home and nothing stands out enough to be able to use to it explain or illustrate any description of Egyptian life. And I wonder: why is this?

With great regularity, Lebanese people would tell me to give up trying to understand their country and society, because I would never be able to. I never felt like that was true. Sure, I probably misunderstood some (or many) things, or have explained or interpreted things in ways that many Lebanese would not agree with, but that just makes me human - it doesn’t mean that there is something inherently incomprehensible about Lebanese society. It helped that I was mostly hanging out with thoughtful, analytical people, who weren’t generally fazed by my many questions as to why, why, why certain things are done a certain way (and not another). It also seemed that even if different groups in society completely opposed each other’s (political) views, they were never baffled that anyone could, in fact, hold such views. It was as if their differences were on the extreme end of the same plane, somehow.

In Egypt, no one has ever told me it is impossible to understand Egyptian society, but many have shaken their head at my attempts to do so. My questions have been met with sighs and ‘well, I don’t understand it either.’ Sometimes I feel it’s a matter of scale – can you ever truly feel you understand a country of 80 million people, a society where people are as baffled by each other as they are with things they see on National Geographic? With a country of this magnitude also comes a tremendous variety in terms of language, traditions, ways of living and positions in society that make it hard to take anything as a vignette for the rest.
But even if I take ‘just’ Cairo and leave regional differences aside, there is still something else at play. It has something to do with the way Egyptian society can be overwhelming and intrusive in its massiveness that makes every encounter with it disappear into a blur after it’s over. Its noise, the way it demands your attention at all times (a short bike-ride is 50% tiring because of the physical effort required and 50% because of the constant barrage of words and cars and honking horns and scooters and stares, for example), that makes it so that nothing particularly stands out once you retreat from it. A retreat that is only partial, because even in a beautiful apartment on the third floor in a relatively quiet neighborhood, the soundscape of daily life still enters, and that makes it hard to step back and analyze it.

I’m forcing myself to try though, this month. Maybe I’ll be a little wiser by the end of it.