Stories from Afar & Up Close

Filtering by Category: Personal

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.



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?“

Queen of the Road

So I have this thing I bought here in Cairo, it's called a bike. It's actually really pretty, look:

Pretty, right? Made in Taiwan.

And, since bikes are mainly known as means of transportation, I use mine to get around the city. I ride it to work, to Arabic class, to go out... you know, the usual.

In the beginning, it was mainly fun. Sure, the dust is awful and traffic is crazy – there are not a lot of rules, cars pull over without warning and buses start and stop wherever and whenever they damn well please (or wherever and whenever there is a potential passenger waiting, even if that is right at the base of the on-ramp of one of the busiest bridges in town, but that aside) – but all in all, the roads are quite good, there are no hills to speak of, and it's not as dangerous as one might imagine.

However, I quickly learned that it's not all that usual. I mean, there are certainly plenty of people who ride bikes here. Hell, I've even seen people who ride a bike with a long rack with bread on their head! Or a serving tray with a complete breakfast on it! But the thing is, those people riding bikes are not women, and that's what makes the combination of me and my main means of transportation so special. Apparently.

Hence my status on facebook:

So riding my bike in Cairo is really dangerous... especially for the three guys on the scooter that stared at me for so long they hit the parked car in front of them.

People keep staring. And commenting. And screaming at me. Most often heard, in order of frequency:

  • Eh da?!? (What is that?!)

  • Random car honking (not meant to warn me for anything, just to say hi)

  • Agala, agala! (Bike bike!)

  • GOOOOD MOOORNING! (no matter what time of day)

  • Hey, you, good, good! Bravo!

  • What's your name! (preferably from across the road) or How are you!

  • Ahdslasehlkajebshf! (never understood the actual text, usually a sentence thrown at me from the open window of the seat of a passing car, with an accompanying grin)

You may have noticed they all have exclamation marks at the end. That's because they're all exclamations. Loud ones. Meant to attract my attention. Which I don't understand, because why would I want to look at you when you are screaming and I am riding my bike. In aforementioned traffic. In fact, it may even be dangerous to look at you:

First bike-accident in Cairo is a fact, thanks to the helpful guy who kept screaming ‘watch out watch out watch out’ trying to warn me about the gigantic concrete block he had put in the middle of the road. Which I then didn’t see, because I was looking at the screaming guy. 
Result: I flew over the concrete block, and my bike flew over me. 

Fortunately, no bike-parts and only one knee were hurt (and only 2 guys thought their stupid opinions about women riding bikes were confirmed).

Other dangers? Teenage boys suddenly jumping in front of my bike or sticking out a leg (I can only assume they are unfamiliar with the physics of wheels with spokes) and young men with big egos on motorcycles who cannot accept being passed by a me when they are stuck in traffic and I manage to find some space to squeeze myself between two cars. They eventually find space, pass me, stop a few meters ahead of me, hurl an insult when I ride by, and race off.*

See that guy there? With one hand on a double(!) rack of bread? Yeah, he's riding a bicycle. Now  that  deserves awe and respect.

See that guy there? With one hand on a double(!) rack of bread? Yeah, he's riding a bicycle. Now that deserves awe and respect.

The good part? The women. Where the surprise of boys/men comes out as annoying attention-seeking or hurt-ego-compensating, I have yet to pass one woman who does not smile when she sees me, and give me a look that says: you go, girl. It's awesome, and I hope that somehow, somewhere, they will get to experience that same rush of wind and speed and owning the road that riding my bike in Cairo gives me.



*Important footnote: I was standing at an intersection yesterday when a group of teenagers started commenting on me and my bike from across the street. They kept going, eventually surrounding me, touching my bike and screaming things at me. It was more annoying than dangerous, so I tried to ignore them (which is kind of hard when someone is changing the gears on the bike I am sitting on), when suddenly a man in a suit appeared. He picked up two of the boys and threw them towards the sidewalk, then grabbed two others and pulled them in the same direction. The rest of them followed. He then lectured them in front of everyone, without even once looking back at me. I was very grateful to see an Egyptian man telling other Egyptian men(-to-be) that this kind of behavior is not ok. Thank you, man!

Home, unnoticed

Coming to Beirut is coming home. Not coming home in a metaphorical or existential sense of 'finally having found a place where I belong' – if anything, Beirut is the slut that makes everybody and nobody feel like she is theirs.

No, Beirut has become home in the way that a hometown is and always will be home: I walk the streets and pass places that I never actively remember when I am not here, but that are part of some kind of physical knowledge, my legs functioning like my fingers that can remember how to play something on the piano as long as my brain doesn't get involved.

Beirut is home because I have memories everywhere, but they, too, are more felt than remembered, not verbalized even in my head.

I've seen places disappear and new places come up, and some of those I've seen disappear as well. It's home because I see it and I don't see it at the same time, the initial place always dominating that location without the shock that it has become something else because I have changed with this city and we both know that all those old things are still inside us as well.

Beirut is home because I am no longer surprised by her.

Beirut is home because I don't notice her anymore.


Yesterday my bike-key broke in the lock and i took the bus in the wrong direction. Didn't have the phone number of my school to tell them i was going to be late. Today my train was delayed and my other bike had a flat tire. Walking back to the station i passed an old lady who almost started crying when i asked her what was wrong. "I locked myself out of my car and the engine is still running. I can try to walk home but then i have to ask someone to break into my house to find the other keys and i don't know if anyone will be around." I tried to find a way to open the doors of the little car but couldn't, so i called the police for her.

She thanked me a million times, hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. "I'm just not very good at life these days," she said.

Do I ever know what you mean, dear lady.