New Internationalist

Turning Japanese

Issue 424

Maria Golia on an experience of cultural cross-wiring in heat-addled Cairo.

In summertime Cairo, air conditioned shops are as often frequented for refreshment as purchases. So it was I stopped at my neighbourhood stationery shop on the last leg of a walk home and enjoyed a strange encounter. The store belongs to Ramez, a tri-lingual, Christian male of around 35. Moustachioed, pear-shaped, with lustrous dark eyes and hair parted neatly on the side, he still wears the kind of button-down shirts and belted high-waist pants his mother probably dressed him in for school.

When he opened a few years ago, I was excited to see his stock (including real post-it notes, not the Chinese kind that never stick), all the finicky things desk-bound people love. He was anxious to show off his English, which prompted me to show off my French. Once, we locked horns over a faulty printer cartridge that I, as a faithful early client, felt he should have replaced. So I boycotted him for a while until his selection of mechanical pencils and neon highlighters lured me back. Eventually, we made friends.

Ramez had been educated by the Jesuits, perhaps the highest standard of private schooling once available. As is customary, his father, an accountant, helped him choose a career. Ramez was meant to be a doctor, a social step above accountant, but didn’t make the grades. He wanted to sell cars, but his father found stationery more appropriate. For 12 years he worked from his father’s office selling wholesale to large companies, then decided to expand. Acquiring this shop took money, and although Ramez’s father had set aside a sum for an apartment when he married, they still needed to borrow from the bank. 

In Ramez’s words: ‘Banks in Egypt are ruthless, illogical and very mean.’ They gave him a 24 per cent interest rate calculated on a monthly accrued basis. The business he hoped would set him free to see the world, for at least a month or so a year, had trapped him in a cycle of debt. He told me he had a schoolmate who wasn’t very smart but went to Canada and did well. He said: ‘If I had gone there, I’d be a millionaire.’ Ramez is understandably cynical about life in Cairo; when’s he’s old he’ll probably be bitter. All our conversations end the same way: with him shaking his head over the sheer wackiness of a passport-holding American choosing a hellhole like this as her adopted home.

The television mounted on the wall opposite his cluttered desk is always on, usually a satellite channel showing re-runs of vintage US serials like I Dream of Jeannie and The Lone Ranger or else the regional version of MTV. Perhaps also by way of distraction he employs several pretty unveiled Christian girls who never seem to do very much. I suspect he believes they’re in love with him and consider him quite a catch. But I’ve caught their wary looks. The other reason Ramez gives for being stuck in Egypt smacks of a tender misogyny: ‘I only have two sisters and I cannot leave my aging parents here alone.’

I was trying out some erasers when a fully veiled lady entered, doubtless taking refuge from the heat. Startlingly, she greeted me in English and asked where I was from. She wore glasses beneath the mesh rectangle that covered her eyes; a glinting slit in a black hood. Talking to women who are this extremely dressed is like talking to yourself. You miss the facial expressions that usually accompany a response, and find yourself contorting your own face to compensate for her absent one. I stammered, torn between my real and some invented nationality. ‘I know,’ she chirped, before I could answer, ‘you’re Japanese, I can tell by your eyes!’ This threw me and Ramez, who was furtively following our interchange.

The hazards of draping oneself to the eyelids include impaired vision, tripping over things and getting caught on or hit by cars; but mistaking a six-foot redhead for Japanese gave pause. Was it heat stroke? ‘It must be hot under there,’ I wanted to say, ‘maybe you should sit down…’ but she was already wheeling around and throwing me an irony-free ‘Nice seeing you’ from the door.

‘Who was that masked woman?’ I quipped to Ramez, but the Lone Ranger reference escaped him.

‘Someone who’s never been to Japan,’ he said, sighing deeply and running a wistful eye over his shop girls before turning back to his TV.

Maria Golia is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004) and the forthcoming book Photography and Egypt.

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