Stories from Afar & Up Close

Batatis batatis

I live in a side street of a side street of a side street, in an area with very little high rise and even less traffic, and yet my street is really only quiet on Friday mornings. All other days I can tell the time by the sounds that come up to my third-floor apartment.

First it’s the vegetable guy with his younger brother and their horse-drawn vegetable cart. They have voices like I’ve only once heard before, in Yemen. Potatoes! Tomatoes! Cauliflowers! More potatoes! Even if you weren’t in the market for some fresh greens, you almost want to run down to get some just to get them to stop screaming.

An hour or so later, it’s an old man uttering a loud string of religious words, as per the holy book in his one hand, alternated with a cry about the lemons in his other hand. No one in my house has ever been able to really understand him – I’m not sure if he’s cursing or blessing us, or if that depends on whether or not he sells any lemons (if indeed they are for sale).

For a while it’s just the usual soundscape of dogs barking, cars honking, the whizzing of the neighbor’s water pump and the occasional clacking of horse or donkey hooves pulling carts with squeaky wheels. Sometimes, if the rest of the world is quiet enough, I can hear the little bells that decorate their bridles.

Then the old lady arrives. She’s probably not taller than a meter and a half, and takes her about 20 minutes to get from one end of the street to the other, all the while moaning and wailing incomprehensible ahhhs and ooohss. She carries towels over her right arm, of different sizes, and it may be that she sells them, too.

Fresh garlic vendor (picture taken in spring). Dokki, Giza/Cairo.

Fresh garlic vendor (picture taken in spring). Dokki, Giza/Cairo.

In the afternoon, the vegetable man and his brother reappear. This time, their voices often clash with those of the men on old cargo bikes who collect used goods like broken chairs, furniture and appliances, making their presence known by screaming ‘roba vecchia’ – the Italian term for ‘old stuff’, as far as I’ve understood (although many of them don’t seem to know what they’re saying either).

By now, it’s time for the children to come home. They’ll quietly do their homework on the hood of a parked car until it’s dark. Dark is when playtime starts. Their football teams battle until late at night, and I often go to sleep by the sound of their disputes about goals scored (or not).

I don’t mind the noise. I know the potato-guy will wake me up on time the next morning.