New Internationalist

The pampered paws

Issue 430

Following in the footsteps of a Nobel prize winner, Maria Golia takes a sideways look at Egypt’s burgeoning middle class.

For those who can afford the luxury, Cairo is a great place for a pedicure. In the virtual absence of laws regarding the medical profession (and/or malpractice), amateur pedicurists are free to delve into the depths of any foot that steps forward. The man who looks after mine is gifted; I sometimes feel he’s the only person I truly can’t live without.  I’ve followed Khaled’s career from its humble beginnings, and seen how hard work and ambition can reshape a man – in Khaled’s case from a jovial healer to a balding, overweight father of three with chronic back problems and a mobile phone growing from his ear.

Khaled is a representative member of Egypt’s new middle class, which vies with the upper crust for consumerist appetites too numerous to sate. His shop is located in a quarter known as Dokki which (like the middle class) did not exist 25 years ago, at least in its present form. For the last few years, Khaled’s shop has been surrounded by construction sites, buildings erected with frightening haste some 10 or 15 floors tall. One of the last trees on the street is located outside his window. Inside, around two dozen men and women sit with their feet or bejewelled hands submerged in soapy water. The air-conditioning is on high, the strains of Arabic pop or hotel-lobby jazz barely audible above the din of traffic and jackhammers.

ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH JOHN
ILLUSTRATION BY SARAH JOHN

Khaled started out at Lucy’s, a tiny shop in a downtown alley, belonging to an Armenian woman and frequented by ageing movie stars and celebrities. It had a cosy little couch and a coffee table beneath whose glass was an autographed photo of Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, with his feet on Lucy’s lap. Upstairs was a mini loft with several curtained partitions where women could get a hallawa, the local version of waxing, involving a brown paste made of cooked sugar and lemon juice. Fifi and Zizi, stout, firm-handed women, performed this intimate service as a kind of vocation. Indifferent as executioners, their work procured pain but they were swift. The sticky nature of hallawa demands a brisk dexterity, otherwise it clumps intractably, but that didn’t stop Fifi and  Zizi from chattering with one another and each other’s clients through the curtains, adding to the banter that at Lucy’s was conducted in five languages: Arabic, French, Armenian, Italian and English.  

I recall one indicative exchange that occurred when a wealthy woman asked Fifi where she was going for the summer, as if someone on Fifi’s salary took vacations.

‘Venezuela, of course,’ Fifi deadpanned, no doubt the first place that popped into her mind.

‘Do you go every year?’ the woman persisted.

‘One year yes, one year no,’ Fifi said with obvious sarcasm, provoking Zizi’s zinger:

‘Hey Fifi!’ she hollered. ‘Are you sure that’s Venezuela not Bab Zuwayla?’ The latter is a poor neighbourhood in Cairo’s medieval quarter not far from where Fifi lived.

Everyone, upstairs and down, laughed a big thigh-slapping laugh of the kind rarely heard these days.

Lucy’s pedicurist was an older gentleman of talent and sensitivity, but his apprentice, Khaled, soon acquired a faithful following and in time decided to strike out on his own. Many of his clients abandoned Lucy’s for the new place in Dokki, which is larger and more modern, with vibrating chairs and halogen lights. Lucy’s WC was a dank cubicle; Khaled’s one brightly lit and tiled but, in keeping with a local tradition I have yet to fathom, unequipped with toilet paper. Khaled’s staff is likewise organized in typically labour-intensive Egyptian fashion. For every two clients, there’s an employee, each with a specialized task: someone to scrub the foot tubs or the foot, to remove the nail polish, deliver tea, sweep the floor, and so on. I watched as a muscular young man massaged the feet and lower legs of a fat middle-aged woman with a frenzied, almost embarrassing energy. The woman read a newspaper, holding it so close to her face as to obliterate him from her view.

Khaled, meanwhile, held his cellphone to his ear with a shoulder, which disturbed me since he was in the midst of a delicate operation on my left big toe that demanded his full attention. No sooner had he finished one call than the damned thing rang again. Fondly, I remembered Lucy’s, where people talked to one another, not their phones, so I asked Khaled if he ever missed the old days, or Lucy, or Naguib Mahfouz. He looked up and smiled but the phone interrupted him. By the time he finished he’d forgotten my question and, anyway, I knew the answer.

Maria Golia is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004) and Photography and Egypt, published by Reaktion Books in 2009.

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