Stories from Afar & Up Close

The People I've Met (1)

There was this family I met in Cairo. Mother and father and daughter, from Iraq. The daughter was in her early teens, if I remember correctly. She was in a wheelchair, could barely control the movement of her arms and legs, could utter sounds but no coherent sentences or even words. She was a delight, and so were her parents. Their love for her was so beautiful, it made me stop whatever I was doing to observe them. They cheered her on in the most loving way possible, every time she managed to master something new, a new word, a new sound, a new movement.
I asked if she was born this way. Her mother told me they had waited and hoped for and wanted a child for 12 years before she finally became pregnant. Their baby was born healthy and grew up to be this smart, cheerful girl, until one day when she was about four years old – a day when the Americans bombed their city. A huge blast close to their house blew out the windows, and the girl fell from her bed where she was sleeping. She wasn’t hurt, or so it seemed, but the next day she stopped talking, stopped moving, stopped reacting. It took two years before she slowly started moving, uncontrollably, and making sounds. “We’re still thankful every day that God has given her to us,” her mother said, “and we’re thankful for every day we get to spend with her.” There wasn’t a hint of anger in her voice.

Approximate living

First weeks on Lesvos, furnishing my new apartment in Mytilini.

I order a mattress of 140x200cm. The one that is delivered is 140x190. I call the company.
"No problem madam, 190 or 200, it's all the same."
"Uh, not really, I'm almost 190 and I don't want my feet sticking out of the bed."
"Ok, if you want we will send one that is 200cm."

I buy a second-hand fridge from the real estate agent, who showed me a small, clean, white fridge and said the one for sale was practically the same. The one that is delivered is black and incredibly dirty.
"This is not exactly like the one you showed me. It's a different color. And dirty."
"No problem, black, white, it's all the same. But if you don't want it I have another one."

The one that is delivered is white and clean, but almost as tall as me and about one meter wide. A family of twelve could store enough food in it for a week.
"Uh, this is not exactly like the one you showed me either. It's gigantic."
"Ok no problem, big, small, it's all the same. But if you don't want it, I'll take it with me."

I'm in a textile shop, looking for bedsheets. I ask for a fitted sheet of 140x200.
"Ok, I have 90x190."
"Uh, that's not exactly 140x200."
"No problem, I have what you're looking for. Here, take this one, it's 150x205."

Greece and I, we're going to need some time to agree on shapes and sizes.



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!"



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.

“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.”

“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”

“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.”

“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?“