Until recently, there were two things you never talked about in Egypt: time and money. While it was permissible to discuss things like eternity, you wouldn’t dream of announcing the hour you had to wake up or the appointment you had in the afternoon. If people wore wristwatches, they were ornamental. As for money, just as the aristocratically rich find it a vulgar topic of conversation, amongst Egypt’s princely poor it was likewise infra dig.
Time isn’t as elastic as it once was in Cairo, where the days pass in a Sisyphean loop focused on survival; and money is now so tight it’s the very talk of the town. Walking through the city, the snatches of conversation that reach one’s ears are no longer phrases or gasps of laughter, but numbers, amounts in Egyptian pounds. People aren’t discussing foreign exchange rates or the stock market, but the price of everything they need and can’t afford.
Only in the bank is there silence, I noticed this morning, the row of chairs provided for clients occupied by grave-looking men sitting quietly, as if at a funeral. I took a number and joined them. Only two tellers were working, and one of them was busy tallying receipts. To my right, a bearded man with a festering callous on his forehead (caused by fervent friction with the prayer mat) held a mobile phone that rang with the voice of a famous sheikh reciting suras of the Qur’an. To my left, surrounded by several large, bulging suitcases, sat two down-at-heel factotums, come to deposit some bigshot’s haul. They were in their thirties, their baggy trousers and shirts so frequently and assiduously ironed that the threadbare creases held together solely by force of habit. The teller called their number and they started transferring their parcels to the window, while everyone in the bank looked on.
Once they’d dragged the cash-stuffed suitcases into position, they opened one, packed solid with neat stacks of various denominations, and began piling them on the counter. As they did so, one could not help observing their faint swagger. It wasn’t their money, of this everyone was certain, yet they handled it with pride, as if this transient intimacy conferred a special grace, setting them apart from the men who sat watching, clutching salary cheques of no importance, wondering how they’d make ends meet.
Aware that all eyes were upon them, the trusty factotums slouched casually, one of them leaned his elbows on the counter, and the other probed his ear with a pencil. Both sighed with saintly patience at the task the teller had begun, of running this great hoard, stack by stack, through the automatic money counter. The sound of it, a thrumming flutter followed by a decisive click, created a discomfiting rhythm. The bank customers could see they’d be waiting for quite a while. Some amused themselves counting the number of piles that went through the counter. Others shared pages of someone’s newspaper. The man on my right alternately prayed and dozed.
I was probably the only one thinking how easy it would have been to have robbed these gentlemen on the way to the bank, or even now. So far as I could tell, no-one seemed particularly disturbed or bitter at the sight of this mountain of cash, so close yet so far away. Money, for many Egyptians, like time, remains a relative concept; some people have more than others, that is all. People are accustomed to the abyss separating the rich from the poor; it has always been this way and probably always will. But this philosophy is more easily maintained on a full stomach than an empty one, a fact of which Egypt’s fat cats are increasingly aware.
Egyptians have never been shorter of cash and options than they are today, largely because there have never been so many of them competing for the same meagre resources. The strain is beginning to show: crime is on the rise, as is drug addiction, those hallmarks of modernity that Cairo had so graciously escaped for so long. The city’s clamour seems amplified by the concerns everyone shares regarding their ability to feed themselves and families. It’s as if you could hear them all worrying aloud.
By the time my number was called, the factotums had nearly finished their deposit, and we ended up leaving at the same time.
‘Let’s have breakfast,’ one said, trotting down the stairs.
‘I don’t want beans, let’s get macaroni,’ said the other.
‘Have we got enough?’ his friend wondered.
I left them on the street, counting the change they had between them, the empty suitcases lying limply at their feet.