Your average Egyptian doesn’t read much other than the Quran and the newspaper on a daily basis. People aren’t reading novels on the subway like they do in transit in NYC; rather, a man’s beard peaks out from his daily, a woman’s lips move with the rhythmic verses of the holy Islamic text.
So I was pleasantly surprised when my neighbor on the bus to Cairo asked to leaf through the underlined pages of my Naguib Mahfouz short stories. Naguib Mahfouz is the father of Egyptian written expression, who dug up the rugged charm of Cairo’s dusty alleyways and Egypt’s colonial and revolutionary history, re-enamoring millions of Egyptians with their country and sharing the real Egypt and her people with the world.
Soon after Naguib Mahfouz broke the ice, Madame Ibtisam was programming her number into my phone and telling me how I would come over and she’d cook me molokhiyya, Egyptian spinach soup. She announced that she used to work some job in the public sector, had three children - “Alhamdulillah, praise be to God” - and a husband who had passed away 15 years ago.
“We used to go to Agamy in the height of winter,” she gushed fondly of him. Agamy is a suburb of crisp Mediterranean beaches outside of Alexandria where folks go to escape the city. “It was freezing. Wrapped in our thickest jackets, we would stroll down the beach together – our love kept us warm. We would collect sea shells and glass softened by the waves to put in jars to decorate my husband’s pharmacy.” She wasn’t sad at all; in fact, her face was awash with the meaning of her name, Ibtisam, smile. She was just blissfully nostalgic, transported back to that bleak blue ocean whipped up by the ashy winter clouds, her husband by her side.
“I like how you’ve underlined some things, a lot of it is the romantic parts,” she noted coyly. “Are you a romantic?”
“I guess so,” I shrugged my shoulders, bringing a shade of pink to my cheeks.
“Like this, here.” Madame Ibtisam traced a chubby and callused finger over an underlined passage and held the novel between us. With Naguib Mafouz’s help, we silently shared a million love stories, hers, Egyptians’, and mine.
عرفت الحب لأول مرة في حياتي. إنه كالموت تسمع عنه كل حين خبراً ولكنك لا تعرف إلا إذا حضر. وهو قوة طاغية يلتهم فريسته، يسلبه أي قوة دفاع، يطمس عقله وإدراكه، يصبّ الجنون في جوفه حتى يطفح به، إنه العذاب والسرور واللانهائي. تلاشى شخصي القديم تماما وحل محله آخر بلا تراث ولامبادئ، ينقض على مصيره بعينين معصوبتين.
“I knew love for the first time in my life. I learned that it is like death; you hear all sorts of things about it, but you don’t know unless you’ve attended. It is an oppressive force that devours its prey, depriving it of any defensive strength, wiping out its reason and consciousness, filling its empty cavity with a madness until it overflows. I learned that it is torture and joy and the infinite. The person I was faded away completely and was replaced by one without tradition or principles who went up against his fate with blindfolded eyes.” -"Love Above the Pyramid Plateau: The Light of the Moon", short stories by Naguib Mahfouz
“How do you know her?” My friend Hadir has just put me in the first empty cab to pull up to the square below her apartment in the chic neighborhood of Zamalek. The cab driver and she exchange startled looks and then a laugh over some shared memory.
“She rode with me a couple times.”
“Oh, what a funny coincidence.”
“It’s so crazy, she looks like a boy, but she has a chest and everything. In the morning she could go out as a boy, and then in the evening, she could go out as a girl, if she wanted!” I roll my eyes, now used to Egyptians’ inability to figure Hadir out. You could say she’d fit right in on Smith campus in a feminist literature class with a bunch of other butch chicks. People stare at her all the time in utter confusion, and often address her with the male “you”.
“No,” I correct, “I’m actually positive that she’s just a girl, all the time.
A minute later, he asks, “You’re not Egyptian, are you?”
A minute later, he asks, “You’re not Egyptian, are you?”
“Nope.” I don’t feel like divulging my nationality tonight, and he doesn’t press me.
“It’s better that way. Egyptians are no good.”
“What do you mean?! Egyptians are the best!” I am shocked at his condemnation, since I’ve heard many an Egyptian claim that his people are truly the best on the planet. Many of them claim to know that even without having left their country’s borders, much less Cairo’s!
“No, no, they’re no good. Well, half of them are good, the men are good. Not the women, though.”
“You mean to tell me that all Egyptian women are no good?”
“Exactly, the women are awful.” There’s an Egyptian proverb that if a man is grumpy, his woman must be giving him a hard time at home. I can’t get a feel for this guy, though – is he open to humor and sarcasm, or would he be irked that a foreign woman is pushing his buttons? Either way, I’m feeling sassy tonight and don’t feel like taking any chauvinism or idiocy. I decide to leave his woman out of it and take a different angle.
“Well, actually, I think you have the wrong half of the population. I think the men are the worst part of Egyptian society.”
“No, no, you’re wrong there.”
“Tell that to all the women who get harassed and groped every day in the streets by rude men.”
“Nooo, ever girl likes to get harassed. Every girl likes to hear ‘sweet thing’, or that they’re beautiful.”
“I’ve heard far nastier than that. What about those men?”
“Well, they’re rude. But that’s not what really happens.” It is clear my feminist rampage is going nowhere. Our conversation leads us to his asking what I am doing here anyway, so I tell him about my Arabic studies.
“Do people in your program study the Quran and Islam?”
“Yea, sure, all the time.”
“Anyone with an ounce of understanding and smarts who reads the Quran will convert to Islam.” His eyes bore back at me through the rearview mirror.
“Well, sometimes they’re studying it in a more academic context, or in comparison to other religions like Judaism and Christianity.”
“The only things we share with Judaism and Christianity are the 10 commandments that God sent down to Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed. You know, don’t steal and don’t kill, the basics. But if someone reads the Quran, they will, they must, convert to Islam.” So much finger wagging ensues in this sentence that I feel more nervous than usual winding among Cairo’s sadistic streets and drivers.
“Well, there’s also the linguistic value of the Quran. It’s the epitome of the Arabic language, so others study it for that reason.” He scoops up my compliment to his heritage.
“Arabic is truly an amazing language, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been studying it for five years, and I learn something new every day,” I offer.
“I’ve been speaking it for 46 years, and I learn something new every day!” He slaps the steering wheel in a hoarse guffaw.
Somehow, our conversation meanders to the Russians who permeate the Sinai peninsula’s resorts.
“Russian women are beetches. They just want to marry rich Egyptian men.” He pauses, searching for a tactful in. “I’ll marry you if you want, and then you can get Egyptian citizenship. How old are you?”
“A lot younger than you.”
“How old do you think I am?”
“You told me, 46 years old. Which is too old for me.”
“Well, just offering!”
I bemusedly get out of the cab before he can ask for my number in order to make good on his marriage proposal. It’s just another night in Cairo.