Recent developmentsPosted: May 9, 2012
The fun had to stop at some point and since it had already stopped being fun sometime ago, I’m glad it happened when it did. Yes, the funemployment is over and I have a job. Is this the end for the Stranger? Hardly, from adjusting to smoking in the office (very Mad Men) to interviews at country clubs, life has never been odder.
Sure, the pallet on the floor of a room without a door has been replaced by a bed with Superman sheets but the wanderlust is as insatiable as ever, fed now by the exploration of Africa’s largest city. New experiences abound; from the everyday (going to a hole in the wall Sudanese restaurant), to the profound (navigating a new cultural landscape). And of course there’s that old chestnut, the ever difficult Arabic language to chip away at.
Life in the heaving megalopolis of Cairo is never dull, if not always entirely pleasant, and surprises are thrown my way daily. Initially it was big things that surprised. The tap water is drinkable. Sure it tastes like pond water but the smell of chlorine is strong enough to reassure you that nothing could possibly be living in it. The Metro works really well. It may be crowded but then what subway system isn’t? Then there was the question of renewing a visa. Amazingly it was quick and painless, unbelievable almost (especially compared to the bureaucratic nightmare I encountered in France). Although to be totally fair I rather doubt I was the only one in the crowd for whom the reason for extending their stay was not ‘strictly for touristic purposes only’.
As mentioned in a previous post, taxi drivers have became my unwitting, but always willing, Arabic tutors – always lavish with praise. There is no longer any question of getting ripped off at the end of a ride, we’re always too good mates for that. That and I also tip far more than I should – a small price to pay to get taught how to say 219 in a suitably abbreviated metensatosh’ (at least that’s how I transliterated it).
Figuring out how many of my preconceptions are grounded in reality and how many are imagined or manipulated is a never-ending analysis, but as the weeks slide into months more subtle nuances become apparent. At a party recently that was spilling out of an apartment into the stairwell, I overheard a friend talking to one of the neighbours who was looking a little concerned in his doorway. I initially assumed the neighbour was complaining about the noise, the drinking, the strange people coming and going. No, the old man was ok with all these things, but he was concerned that there appeared to be Egyptians at the party. He had been assured in advance that this would not be the case. Westerners behaving badly was something to be tolerated – they are guests in the country after all – but it was unacceptable for young Egyptian men, or heaven forbid women, to be exposed to this corrupting influence. I don’t know whether this sentiment is widespread but I have certainly got the impression that as a western guy I can behave in ways that would not be tolerated with locals.
Conservative but tolerant, those seem to be the adjectives I grasp for when describing Egyptians in general terms. But then of course general terms is just another way of saying stereotypes and trying to think about 90 million people as a homogenous whole has its pitfalls. As humans we endlessly try to categorise, to make something meaningful out of the endless stream of information being fed to us. The trick with categorising is to maintain a level of abstraction that allows us to make some semblance of sense of our world without attaching so many qualifiers and exceptions that our categories become meaningless. This is tough. And considering Egyptians, the divisions are, of course, just as with any people, endless. Like a fatir, you can cut the Egyptian population just about any way you like, making distinctions between: men and women (an even split); haves and have-nots (a tiny slice and a thin-lipped pacman); educated and illiterate (apparently around 70 percent are literate); urban and rural (maybe around 60 percent rural); conservative or liberal (depends on your definition I suppose); overtly religious or less so (I have encountered one openly atheistic Arab since I’ve been here, but he was Syrian); Muslim or coptic (depends who you ask, probably around 80-90 percent Muslim); and so on, ad infinitum.
As a stranger, I navigate these subtleties with all the grace of a flying brick. To illustrate, I recently watched an interaction a woman and a man shaking hands in which I noticed the woman twist the man’s wrist outwards and stroke it inquiringly (if, indeed, it is possible to stroke in an inquiring manner).
“What was that all about?”
“She wondered why I didn’t have a cross tattoo.”
It’s common to see Coptic Christians with small cross tattoos on their inner wrist.
“Why did she think you were Coptic?”
“Because I am Coptic.”
“Oh, well how did she know if you don’t have a tattoo.”
“She saw my necklace.”
I looked but saw only a thin chain peeking out from his shirt, no crucifix visible.
The penny dropped; it’s haram for men to wear gold in Islam and the woman, noticing his necklace, had correctly deduced he was Coptic. While this all seemed rather Sherlock Holmesy, I’m sure, after all that it was perfectly elementary, dear Watson.