Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

Ahmed Shukri was a sailor with the oil companies for about thirty-five years. He hunches over, but is actually quite tall and, in contrast to most Egyptians, who tend to be olive-skinned, he is pale and soft — his face never seems to have a bristle of hair on it, which atop his head is a kind of pompadour of waxy whiteness. He wears striped polo shirts and bowling shifts, and his fingers are permanently knurled around a cigarette: when he walks, when he sits, when he laughs, and he never ashes it — as if the force of his shaking hands automatically does so. He is extremely eager to speak English. He is even more eager to speak German, which I tell him I can’t speak, but this never seems to stop him.

Ahmed Shukri must pass the ahwa on the corner of Delta Street near the tram station about fifteen times a day, and each time he does, he ducks his head into the shadows, squinting behind his giant black sunglasses. He looks for people he knows, and hollers, waves with both hands in the air, and walks on. I’ve noticed that he also looks in the corner that I sit the most often, and when he sees me (and other random people), he walks over and says hello. It’s not just a Hello-How-are-you? gig, but usually one consists of the following programmatical formula:

Hello! Michael! (English) How are you?

(Arabic) Good, Ahmed. How are you?

(English) You are good? Yes? You are good?

(Arabic) Yes, Ahmed. I’m excellent. How are you?

(He says something in German. I laugh. He laughs).

Okay, Michael. I call you later, no? Goodbye.

If Ahmed’s conversational skills strike you as a bit one-sided, you’re not alone. This represents about half of my conversations in Arabic; especially when your deal with hot-shot shop owners who think they can put a sentence together and insist on using English when you are clearly trying to speak to them in Arabic. OR you clearly speak Arabic better than their English. I’ve decided that when someone makes up their mind to not understand you (i.e., because you are a foreigner), they will not.

Much as in life at large.

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Yumna lives in the district of Miami– a distant point on the map beyond the last stop on the little tin tram– where it seems a great many of my friends live. Getting out there is a maze of tram and minibus trips, and rather than tackle that gargantuan task, Fadhila and the crew (Tom, Mubarak, and yours truly) hopped a cab and let Yumna do the talking to the driver via telephone.

Hadia’s cooking for our seafood-themed iftar was on par with Hana’s: but I confess the company was much less intimidating (read: one family, not ten), and that might have made the evening far more enjoyable. Table conversation was a mixture of Arabic and English; initially, we all were chatting away in Arabic until someone remembered that Mubarak (who is Bengali-British) is in his third year of fusha. Occasional switches to English, occasional translations.

Now is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on ordinary Egyptian hospitality– which is perhaps my favorite part of the culture. It would be pure fancy to attribute it to that overarching myth of the three-day Bedouin, or the sha’abi Southerner who serves the guests extravagantly despite his poverty. Rather, the modern Egyptian is a city-dweller, or at least aspires to be– he is interested in fashion, culture, music, and society– and he aspires to be in an atmosphere that makes his guests– his friends, I should say– comfortable. If you skip a step in the complicated dance of hospitality, it’s okay; the rules are just guidelines anyhow. Didn’t bring anything? No problem– your presence is enough. Forgot to take off your shoes? Stop it, I just want you to be comfortable. He serves the best cuts of meat, the best dishes to you first, he insists on a second serving because you liked the first, on a third course, a cup of tea, something sweet– even his own bed if you care for a nap after all that food. He insists on using your own language to make you comfortable, and he discusses you: your identity, your goals, your family, your religion.

Why? A guest essentially is the greatest gift, I think. Mind you, these are my own personal reflections; I don’t claim to have interviewed anyone on the subject, but my general impression is that  guest provides something to the host that no one else provides: he makes him feel kingly. A man lives in his house and someone from outside the household enters– he has been invited, he has accepted– the host instantly understands that this, in a small way, is a kind of deference. The guest is present: he must be provided for; his sustenance is in the hands of the host. Much as with gift culture– in which a man gives a gift to a girl to display a kind of possession of her– the acceptance of an invitation is a guest’s deference to the acting host: it relinquishes control of food, of the environment. The guest may be welcome, he may be poisoned– in truth, he does not know. All he knows is that he has ventured into the unknown; he has no control of what is to come.

The host, then, acknowledges this great subconscious submission through preparing the comfort of the guest– and providing for his pleasure. Naturally, when we are honored, we wish to be honored again– and I’m sure that there’s something of the “preparation” mentality involved in all this; that is, ensuring that your guest’s hospitality will equal your own when the time comes for the roles to switch. But the role of the host here is principally to serve the guest; it’s quite likely that you won’t see the women of the house making the meal (and they may not eat with you)– the important thing is to see to the guest. And he never, never, never does the dishes. There is no “payment”; no formal acknowledgement with a thank-you note– simply, the meal, the tea, the company.

What is interesting is that our own guest culture (at least formally) has been watered down by comparison: guests are taxing– they intrude on the personal space (the home) and must be ushered out at a decent hour. The showcase is almost invariably the host: apartments are furnished for entertainment, the host is the one that is honored, rather than the guest (hence the gifts, the cards, the thank-you notes, the whole shebang). Guests talk about objects around the house, pictures, the interesting decor; in Egypt, if you comment on an interesting trinket, the host will most likely give it to you (and really insist).

Perhaps I may seem a little enamored by the idea– but perhaps Abdl Halim and his family are just that fantastic at making you comfortable at home. But it seems to be a trend.

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Uncle Abdou lives about forty-five miles to the southwest of Alexandria in the town of King Maryot, on a villa built on land that the Egyptian army is constantly trying to steal in various corrupt and prevaricating ways. Yet he remains: he and his lovely Egyptian wife are both converts to Islam (he from Catholicism, being from Sevilla–his birthname is Javier–and her from Coptic Orthodoxy Christianity), and they’ve built up an oasis in the desert with their children, Noha, Salma, Yassin, and Ali, in a little half-constructed area just shy of all the industrial complexes south of Alex– and as far as I can tell, the only occupied house in the area.

Last night, Tom and I met up with Fadhila and Yumna and made our way down to Abdou’s for an epic iftar which just about killed us outright. Egyptian food is notorious throughout the Middle East for being relatively boring by comparison– the Lebanese are supposed to be the culinary masters– but this is only because, according to guidebooks, tourists never enjoy food in Egyptians’ homes. The best food is in someone’s house, where dishes abound: frankly, I had no idea what I was eating, but it was incredible– especially what Tom later referred to as “salty pancakes” stuffed with ground beef. Fantastic. I even was brave this time and went in for the mulukhiyya, which for me will forever be associated with Umm Markous’ recipe– which was for a horrible, smelly disaster that I was forced to eat. Mulukhiyya is something of an Egyptian national dish: it is a thick, slimy soup composed mainly of diced Jew’s mallow (a green, leafy vegetable related to mint), served over rice or chicken or drunk as a soup, and its consistency puts most foreigners off– myself included. Hana’s looks so good, though: most varieties look…well, dirty. Hers was a bright green color and delicious– I even had seconds.

Deep-fried dumplings and chunks of bitter-seasoned potatoes, a thick sweet almond paste with peanuts and huge chunks of meat stewed in onions and garlic….And then came dessert: the Omm Ali. A hot mixture of diced puff pastry cooked with milk and almonds and raisins…I was singing Hana’s praises all night and wondering exactly why I stayed away so long. Needless to say, by the time tea arrived, all the men were unbuckling our belts.

Yumna’s marriage is in a few weeks (just after eid) and he kept busting out the marriage jokes. Best one:

“What do Syrians call their wives?”
– I don’t know, Abdl Halim.
“The governors. What do Egyptians call their wives?”
– Same ignorance.
“The police. What do the Saudis?”
– No idea, but here comes the punchline…

His wife, who hasn’t been listening, now interjects “Oh my husband, what did you say?”

“Nothing, darling! Absolutely nothing.”

Didn’t get back until 2: having iftar with Yumna’s parents tonight at a fish place in Miami (not Florida).

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