While I await the publication of Cairo Mon Amour in late June, let me offer you a chapter from Cairo Rations, a memoir I wrote to trigger my memories in preparation for writing Cairo Mon Amour. Here, I describe the Cairo neighbourhood my wife and I moved into in 1973.
We found a flat in Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which led from Tahrir Square to the old market at Bab El-Luq. The charmless street was lined with metal shuttered shops, repair workshops and cafés. The little residential compound at No. 29 was reached through an arch leading into a small courtyard that gave access to three or four flats. Ours overlooked a tiny garden of palms and cactuses coated with a hundred years of grey dust.
A toothless concierge – our bawwaab – lived in a cupboard under an external staircase, where he cooked on a primus stove in the midst of his blankets. There was a fraternity of these bawwaabeen in the neighbourhood, and our man Farag had half a dozen of them over on Fridays to be shaved in the courtyard by a visiting barber. Our interactions with Farag were brief and functional, not the least because I had difficulty understanding rural speech spoken through gums. We settled into a daily routine of checking the mail once I had figured out that the concierge word for ‘letter’ wasn’t the standard term risaalah but gawaab, meaning ‘reply’. Most days he’d greet me with ma feesh gawaab – ‘no reply’. I often wondered what this usage implied; did it characterise the recipient as the party repeatedly begging some favour? Were people like Farag so insignificant that nobody would write to them except to refuse a request? Was Farag perhaps awaiting a legacy, heir to some Egyptian version of Jarndyce and Jarndyce?
I recently learned that our old locale is now notorious for the battle of Muhammad Mahmoud in November 2011, when tear-gassed protesters had their eyes shot out by riot police snipers.
But in 1973 it was a homely but unprepossessing neighbourhood where most basic needs could be satisfied within a few minutes’ walk. I took my shirts to the makwagi, the open-air ironing shop where the black hand irons were heated on a brazier, and the ironing man filled his mouth with water and sprayed the garments through his lips. At the open-air cinema, you could buy melon seeds and peanuts wrapped in a screw of paper made from recycled exam papers, and the floor was always carpeted with shells by the end of the film.
Bab El-Luq market supplied the staples, but I was surprised at the narrow range of fruit and vegetables available; lots of bananas, tomatoes and aubergines. One day my wife came home with half a gigantic cabbage, shaken and upset after being berated by a market trader; when she had asked for the monster vegetable to be cut in two, he had cut it and tried to make her take her both halves; apparently, you couldn’t buy a half, but you could ask for it to be cut in two. She would have needed a wheelbarrow to get the whole thing home.
I’d often take a bowl to the fuul shop in the morning to bring back a dollop of stewed horse beans for breakfast. We learned to give baqsheesh at the baker’s shop to make sure the bread was wrapped with the minimum of finger contact, but we toasted the crust over the gas when we got home anyway. It took me a while to find bottled milk, so I took my own saucepan to a back-alley dairy. It was run by a man with a filthy temper, who constantly yelled at the boys sterilising the water buffalo milk in big open vats; he disappeared for a month to go on pilgrimage, and returned transformed into a genial, beaming uncle.
Indeed, the purchase and preparation of food was largely pre-industrial. Apart from cans of superannuated vegetables and fruit from behind the Iron Curtain, there was little packaged food: Rice and lentils were bought loose and had to be picked over for grit; loose coffee came in two varieties – the same coffee, but Arabic (fine ground) and French (coarse ground); water had to be boiled and stored in second hand whiskey bottles, which could be bought from the robivecchi man (why these junk dealers were called by an Italian name I have no idea).
We gradually widened our shopping circle to include a pork butcher tucked in a nearby alley, as well as the upmarket Maison Thomas delicatessen, where the loveliest butter was made into pats on a cool marble counter, and the most toothsome eggs were sold – long and pointy with orange yolks.
Out delicate stomachs slowly hardened until we suffered from diarrhoea only one day in three. After all, people of my generation were well nourished and hygienically raised under a post-war regime that gave us cod liver oil, school milk, the National Health Service, and council grants to install bathrooms; people sometimes had ‘bilious attacks’ in England, not the nagging gassy squits that dogged us in Cairo. Anticipating gastric troubles, one of the students in our group had tried to prepare himself in London by eating small amounts of dirt each day, scraped from window sills and train floors. But nothing could have prepared me for the folly of buying a second-hand ice cream one evening.
“What flavour is it?” I asked the small boy, who was holding the thing in his fist in the crowded market.
“Mango,” he said, poking the orange mush into the cone with his finger. I snaffled it on the spot.
“Why did he only have one ice cream? Shouldn’t he have had a box of them?” my wife asked me.
The next day, tossing a Frisbee on a playing field in Zamalek, I thought I tore a stomach muscle. Hour by hour the pain grew worse until, believing I was dying, I lay on my bed as a doctor – a Syrian specialiste des maladies internes – used a large antique syringe on me that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed in a medieval torture dungeon.
My faith in British order and bureaucracy intact, I weakly indicated the student travel insurance voucher beside the bed; the jolly old doctor providing the service was to simply complete the details, post the voucher to Head Office in Swindon or Rickmansworth or somewhere, and await reimbursement by postal order. But the screws on the vice squeezing my bowels turned another twist and by the time I returned from the toilet, my wife had paid the Syrian in cash and he had gone.