Thursday, February 08, 2007
It was comforting to return to Egypt, to hear “hamdillah-a-salaama” (the way you say “welcome back,” which means, almost literally, Thank God for safety) and to have a momentary pause, courtesy of not hearing a word of Arabic for 5 weeks, before replying, “Allah-yi-salaam-ak” (God keeps you safe).
You cannot escape God in Egypt unless you want to never speak to others or look at anything. Besides, the ubiquitous floral phrases that might seem a burden when translated into everyday English are lovely in Arabic. Admit it – the name Allah has a much better ring to it than God. (I cannot say this about the call to prayer. We live close to a set of loudspeakers that infiltrates every room in the apartment, so I stopped having notions about the ethereal nature of this daily occurrence.)
Yes, yes, this is my apartment, and this is my neighborhood, and these are the guys who hang out on the street, and there’s that stern traffic cop with the hoary mustache, his hands wrapped behind his back, who will not speak to a lady. When I could be awoken from my jetlagged hibernation, we took walks back out into Cairo, relearning the bumpy landscape with its unpredictable holes, bumbling into the dust-laden streets, laughing at the cars and motorcycles fluttering our clothes through proximity. On our walks, J cheerily hallooed any leering soldiers, which has the effect of making them forget about staring at me and becoming sweet chummy boys with J. Even the shoeshine guy in front of the President Hotel profusely greeted us.
We witnessed a car accident with a certain amount of comfort, too, watching the men get out of their cars, discuss/argue, and honk, as onlookers stared in no simple rubberneck fashion but with obvious enjoyment at the narrative unfolding before them. I don’t want to start proselytizing, but (here I go) there is a certain part of the Egyptian culture that seems to believe in accepting whatever life decides to pile on its collective lap and on finding ways to enjoy whatever can be even minutely enjoyed. Maybe this has to do with religious belief. Maybe it has to do with the seemingly unbreakable schism between classes. I'm not suggesting this is a better way to live one's life. I can’t pinpoint any of this because I am a classic worrywart, an anal retentive, as we like to say, and I am from the planet of “Amrikka.” When I’m out in the world in Cairo, though, I find that I worry less. When I was in the U.S., relaxing before a television and a fireplace and mesmerized by commercials, I still managed to get that old stress ache in my back, that one that, honest to Allah, I have lost in Egypt. There’s something in the air, and it’s not just a veil of pollution.
The other night I was walking home from the grocery and came upon our bawaab standing with the guy who sells antiques and parks cars in front of our building, the young muscular bawaab-in-training, and an old man (“haag”: which sounds bad at first but is a respectful term meaning one who is old and wise enough to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca, In’sha’allah or God willing) whose only role I know of is hanging out. Neghi (our bawaab) extended his hand to me. I had greeted Neghi about an hour before on my way out, but I had rushed past at the time, just saying “Izzayak” (how are you) and moving on without really waiting for a reply. What was I up to? Oh, just going out to buy some bread. Not on a schedule in the least.
As I returned with my bread and a bag of carrots, Neghi stepped forward as if he were about to tell me something important. I shook his hand. (This is something he used to reserve for J – that loose shake-slap between Egyptian men.) He said very slowly, “Inti quayesa?” and I froze. You are well? It was the most basic of Arabic phrases, but I couldn’t think of a reply for a couple of embarrassing seconds. Antique Guy sipped at his glass of loose tea, and young muscular bawaab-in-training lit a cigarette, leaning against the potted plant Antique Guy uses to reserve parking spaces. Haag grinned.
When I did respond, Neghi laughed. “Sabah-il-xeer,” he said, again very slowly, holding up his palm. Since it was early evening, and he had just told me “good morning,” I realized we were having an Arabic lesson and replied, “Sabah-in-noor.” Antique Guy joined in then, he and Neghi teaching me more words than I could absorb, and I jumped up and down proudly whenever I got something right.
I’m sure that this was simply amusement for those guys, since they giggled cutely as a group when I said goodbye and walked into the building. But, really, Neghi made me slow down: Welcome back, Amrikkeya. What’s the freaking hurry?
The next afternoon when I came home, I saw Neghi squatted against the wall. This time I stopped. It was not all that impressive, what I did – good afternoon, you are well?, Allah be praised, goodbye – but I felt a different cadence take hold of me just then, as I looked Neghi in the eye, and we smiled at each other. Yes, he really was well, and so was I, God be praised.