I recently purchased a stepladder, only to discover it had one leg dangerously shorter than the others. When I returned it, the shopkeeper duly noted its wobble, then explained to me it was because the ladder was new. I asked if that meant the leg would grow as it got older. He shrugged, and offered me a cigarette.
It’s a relief, especially during Christmas holidays, to live in a place where consumerism has not entirely caught on. Yes, Cairo has its mega-shopping malls and every fast-food joint imaginable, but many people can only visit them as you would a park or a museum, in order to look and not to buy. Egyptians are inconspicuous consumers who tend to buy what they really need. There are no coupon sections in the newspapers, no two-for-ones, few warranties. Until the ascendance of satellite TV, local commercials were generally boring, often featuring the same gaggle of girls singing jingles and jiggling their breasts. There’s a joke that addresses the not-quite-fully conditioned response to commercial stimuli. It’s about a farmer from Upper Egypt, who sees an ad for Marlboros, then goes out and buys a horse.
Nevertheless, the shopkeeper’s nonchalance towards shoddiness was a typically Cairene attitude that has often troubled me. I may be a lapsed American, but I haven’t lost the habit of expecting things to work. I realize most tradespeople have received little if any training, but it’s hard not to get testy with the carpenter when he shows up without a hammer and asks to borrow mine. The hammer itself is an annoyance, a Chinese import whose head falls off each time you swing it back to strike a nail. The whole city resembles the Chinese goods that have invaded it; nothing is made well or to last. Momentary usefulness, or the mere appearance of utility, is often considered enough.
Sometimes even appearance is foregone in exchange for availability. Salespeople will offer whatever they happen to have on hand in place of the requested item, no matter how different the two may be. Ask the vegetable seller for cauliflower. ‘Take the eggplant,’ he’ll tell you, because that’s what he has, insisting moreover that eggplant is exactly the same thing – ‘it’s vegetable,’ he says. Likewise the tailor who was meant to make a green shirt that somehow turned out pink. ‘Pink looks nice on you,’ he says. But it’s not for me, I tell him. ‘Never mind,’ he counters, ‘pink looks good on everyone.’
In time, I’ve come to savour these interactions and perhaps even grasp what lies beneath. It isn’t facile sales craft, or apathy, or the desire to annoy me that makes people justify lacks or defects, but the belief that everything – and everyone – is multi-use and interchangeable. Why bother with foolish distinctions between thing and thing?
I’ve watched cab drivers mending engine gaskets with drops of plastic melted from their pocket-combs, seen garlic cloves chewed to a paste for use as glue, and Turkish coffee applied to wounds to staunch the flow of blood. I’ve been invited to two-room homes where several broken plastic chairs, inserted into one another, made a comfortable seat, and where the divan doubled as a marital bed under which was stowed a butane-gas burner that regularly produced a dinner for eight.
Most Cairenes live in makeshift houses, have makeshift jobs that hardly pay and go to schools where they’re encouraged not to think. While governmental rhetoric hails Egypt’s democratic progress, arrests of opposition types are common, and torture far from rare. ‘Higher growth rates than ever!’ the pundits exclaim, but the size of bread loaves has diminished from that of a dinner plate to that of a saucer and, for most Egyptians, a portion of meat is a sometime thing.
When the poet Paul Valéry wrote that ‘god made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through,’ he might have been describing Cairo. People are so accustomed to the tell-tale nothingness, that the illusions of wholeness and solidity have been dispensed with altogether – everyone knows they’re living in a castle built of sand. Nor do they harbour great hopes about what might eventually replace it, since in their experience these distinctions too are largely artificial, boiling down to a small, privileged ‘them’ and a great big ‘us’. Yet Cairenes approach each day, by and large, with enviable equanimity. Nothing seems able to deter them – no objective or subjective obstacle – from pursuing the business of survival. Nothing, after all, is perfect.