My building is nearly empty after sunset, since most of the flats are occupied by the offices of a government insurance company whose employees have, by then, all gone home. They don’t do much business anyway, since it’s hard selling insurance policies to poor and fervent fatalists. Nor does the insurance company seem convinced of the value of mitigating disaster. Since its nationalization in the 1960s, my lofty, beautiful belle époque building has suffered severe abuse and little maintenance; the elevator is a deathtrap and they’ve repaired the cracked marble stairs with cement that could give at any moment. I’m always careful to avoid the mended strips when galloping down, but the other day, on my way out to dinner, I fell.
The boab (building guardian) was washing the stairs, his galabiyya (tunic) held aloft between his teeth. ‘It’s slippery,’ I said to myself, right before hitting the ground. My skirt flew up, the boab looked away, and his modesty prevented him from helping me to my feet. Before moving, I assessed the damage: the vodka bottle in my bag was intact, thank god, my back seemed unhurt, but my right arm, with which I’d broken the fall, was bruised and swelling fast. I needed ice and a change of clothes. Returning cautiously home, I recalled an argument I’d witnessed on the stairs that morning.
Illustration by Sarah John
An elderly fellah (farmer), elegant in his galabiyya and leaning on a crude walking stick, was up against at least a dozen of the antagonistic or merely curious office people, my neighbours, from the so-called ‘Centre for Information’ (what sort of information and about whom, I have never, in 16 years, managed to learn). When I first saw him, sunlight pouring from the stairwell windows, he stood in silhouette, spittle flying from his mouth as he bitterly reproached the civil servants for their ignorance and lack of respect. I never discerned the cause of the altercation because in the seconds required to reach the old man’s side, the argument had dissipated; he was given a few shoulder pats and maleshs (‘never minds’) and, mollified, started moving on.
It struck me, rummaging in my Nasser-era ice-box, that Cairo’s irritability level was high, and so, perhaps, was mine. Cairenes are accustomed to hard times, but they’ve outlasted people’s patience. In the absence of cash, options or reasonable hopes thereof, the city seemed at times like a prison, or an asylum for the terminally screwed. Only days earlier I’d heard the angry voices of my upstairs neighbour, Ahmed, the 17-year-old son of the boab, and that of the slightly older boy who collects our garbage and lives off the pennies earned from its recycling. Ahmed berated him for the trash littering the vestibule, and the boy claimed innocence, blaming it on a cat. Throwing open the door, I found them ready to exchange blows, as Ahmed’s sisters and mother poured down from the roof, then the office people came from across the hall.
I took several slaps trying to separate the boys, until someone separated me from them. At the height of it, the miserable garbage boy caved in, begging pardon, trying to kiss Ahmed, calling him repeatedly, ‘my brother’. Ahmed relented and kissed him back, but the ladies took longer to cool down, screaming insults not only at the garbage boy, but the office people and each other, until they’d worn themselves out. Within a quarter of an hour it was over and everyone was back to where they started.
Having iced my arm and changed my skirt, I minced down the still-damp stairs wondering if it was correct to arrive at someone’s house with a blooming haematoma, and if my decrepit building wasn’t itself to blame for the accident, discharging some of the hostility accumulated over a half-century’s neglect. For now it was silent as a bombed cathedral, no shouts or cries, only the mewing of a hungry cat. I knew – having witnessed endless variations on the Egyptian theme of fisticuffs-to-fraternity in the blink of an eye – that whatever the ostensible reason, both the fights and forgiveness were pure ritual, often performed in response to the merest stimuli. They arose not from any compelling need to defend or aggress, but to act things out, let off steam, and thereby avoid real, injurious violence. Nursing my battered elbow, I also knew that lacking a similarly sophisticated, socially acceptable means to let go of my own share of the anger, I’d very cleverly fallen down the stairs.