Monday, February 26, 2007

We’ve mentioned the dangerous intersection near our apartment building, where three streets meet at once – two in a vee-shaped fashion – with no regulation except the older daytime policeman who directs traffic during the busiest times – before and after school. Near misses occur constantly, brakes screech, and cars frequently smack. But here is what’s happening right now. A group of four or five teenaged boys – joined now and then by other boys and adult men – kicks a soccer ball to and fro, up and down, right in the middle of that intersection. Cars and motorcycles honk and swerve around them. The boys play. They whoop. They laugh for joy. At home I would probably think, Idiot young’uns! Get out of the street!

Here, no. Antique Guy (who I’ve mentioned before) dawdles on the crumbling curb before jumping into the fray for a few seconds. The soldiers laugh. Throw down those broken guns and join in! It’s starting to seem simply familiar, this kind of thing, the shape and make of these neighborhood streets. Of course, the green space per person in Cairo is said to be less than the size of your average person’s foot. And boys must play. You have to pay for a park. You have to pay to get to the banks of the Nile in Cairo. Despite all of this, it’s almost as if I am experiencing an old American film set in a city neighborhood – the way people recognize each other, have localized stores, the way boys – even the soldiers with their dopey rifles – seem innocent and…well, adorable. I’m getting nostalgic for no experience I’ve had. Maybe this is just city life. Maybe it’s something I didn’t experience in Minneapolis (the only other city I’ve lived in) because of my proximity to the university. I don’t know. While I would be severely mistaken to view this camaraderie on the streets as indicative of the mood of the people, there is something to be admired about the congeniality of Egyptians. Not the pandering tourist congeniality, no. Boys in the middle of the dangerous street. That’s what I’m talking about.

Above: Shop in Old Cairo

Shops line the streets, many the size of a walk-in closet. Grocers, electricians, antique dealers, makwagis. One night we stopped in a store because we spotted a small reading lamp along the lines of what J had been looking for since we arrived. The lamp was crammed in with ancient alarm clocks, light bulbs, bits of wire with no apparent home, ink pens, batteries, a lonely stuffed bear with “I Love You” on its tummy. Some of this stuff predates Sadat, surely. Anyway, a man sat smoking in the back of the closet-shop, not interested in moving unless we moved from browse-to-buy mode.

James employed the phrase we must all learn: “Bi-kaam?” How much? The man stepped out of the store and into the street. For a minute I thought we had finally offended someone with our Midwestern Arabic. He called over his shoulder, “Minute. One minute.” He returned with a kid in his twenties who wore a yellow sweatshirt and looked as if he may have been napping. This was the first time we realized that there are people who look after the store – that is all they do. The smoking man returned to his post behind the desk and didn’t move again.

J agreed to buy the lamp. OK, great. The kid maneuvers it through the window-hodgepodge. Then he goes over to a socket on the wall. That’s when we notice the lamp doesn’t really have a cord. I mean, it has a little stub of cord, a little longer than my fingernail, and a little fray of wire emerging from that.

(You’ve probably figured out by now that electricity is simply magical for me. Flip the switch! Let there be light! This little piece of writing is by a person who thought the gas oven was going to explode last fall because it was making a crazy rhythmic ticking. The electrician/gas guy I called about the “emergency” arrived and in half a second of observation opened the oven to reveal that yours truly had somehow leaned against the button that starts turning the rotisserie. So you’ll have to forgive my lack of terminology.)

The kid sticks the fray into a socket on the wall. The lamp demonstrates its warm glow. “Tayeb?” he asks. OK?

We both sort of sputter. Um, wire. No wire? Cord? For socket? Plug-in? Plug? J starts a pantomime of plugging a length of cord into a wall. I was ready to leave. Was it a joke? I looked to the window. Nope – the other lamps were in the same state.

The kid opens a dusty cabinet and pulls out a roll of white cord. He holds it up, and we nod yes. He looks surprised that this is what we want, like he never does something like this for a customer. He actually shrugs, which makes me suspicious – is he going to rip us off, acting like this is some kind of big, extra deal – adding something that should have been there in the first place?

J chooses a length, and the kid goes to work. I don’t watch this part – an older man in a green suit has come in wanting a particular set of light bulbs, and I listen carefully to the exchange, plucking out meaning. I remember how conversations begin and end with pleasantries threaded to religious praise, and wonder how J and I come off when we forget these staples. By the time the man has left, the kid has finished. For this extra service, all he wants is LE 3.

Since then we’ve bought one other lamp, at a store that sells handmade stuff from local artists and craftspeople. It’s where we got the Egyptian shawls for some of the womenfolk we know. The same cord/wire/plug-in/doodad situation applied. For that, J went right back to his friend in the yellow sweatshirt. Here's a photo – ain’t it cute?

By the way: Happy birthday, Dad!!



moonlight ambulette said...

i love the image of the frayed wire getting crammed towards the socket. it means something! wait, or does it?

thoughtful observations as usual, miss thang.

Ellen said...

Whenever I travel to a city with serious congestion, I realize that 25 years of living in Mpls-St Paul has made me a traffic naif. We were amazed to see only one car accident (taxi + Mercedes, both drivers unharmed and calm) in New York, where cars pass each other with seeming half-inch margins, delivery trucks double park because there's nowhere else to go, and no one ever signals. When traffic is moving, it's like magic or electrons. Drivers are psychics, able to read the minds of their fellows. When traffic stops, however, they all honk, even if (especially if) the cause is obvious--like gridlock, say, or a driver waiting for oncoming traffic to clear before making a left.

I imagine Cairo is like that, only more so. Plus ball games. And donkeys.

Stephanie said...

Like you, I typically get irritated with kids playing in the street, ignoring the cars around them and nearly causing accidents (I haven't seen this in our St. Louis neighborhood at all, but it happened in Champaign all the time). But also like you, I don't think I could begrudge these kids (or adults) you were watching their play. I don't think I could glower at them in the same way I glowered at the Champaign street-playing kids--and college students--when I drove around them.

(On an unrelated note, it took me a little bit to realize who "m, b's cousin" was, given that Brandi always calls you by your full name, and even the meaning of "b" didn't jump out at me right away--I was having a dense moment, it seems--but I did eventually figure it out. :) I've only read selected posts on your blog, but I've loved those I've read; thinking I could find the time to catch up on all your posts may be a little naive, but I'm going to try to keep up from here on out!)

Anonymous said...

Ok--I mostly enjoyed imagining J pantomine the plug/cord/socket thing in the shop. And--anyone can attach these cords/wires?? Electricity--yea, what's up with that--guess you came by it natural.

Sari said...

We got a foot of snow in Minneapolis this week! I dug my car out of the snow and thought about that neighbor in Iowa who piled up all the snow on our side of the driveway. Now why didn't we say anything?

I'm loving this blog! You both are totally getting books out of this experience. Remember, I predicted it! So, I expect you to still remember me when you're are rich and famous.

kate said...

I love the doodads. I wish I could underline the lines I like best on a blog. I suppose I could cut and paste them here, in the comments, but that just seems silly. I have to agree with Sari. This is wonderful.

Freezing, still, in Minneapolis.