Stories from Afar & Up Close

Filtering by Category: Egypt



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?“

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.

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.