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Manners and the man

Cairo wasn’t made for winter, and despite its overall decrepitude, looks better beneath a blazing sun. Dark days reveal its weaknesses, the shadows of dirt, neglect and want. The worst is when it rains, which isn’t often but comes in winter, sometimes in torrents, for which nothing and no-one is prepared. Pond-sized puddles fill the sewer-less streets. Rare is the roof that doesn’t leak and the taxi with working windshield wipers. I reprimanded a cabbie and received a justifiably dirty look. Who needs windshield wipers in the desert, lady? A man has to eat, doesn’t he? As for the rain, it carries the murk of a grubby atmosphere, splotching clothing with indelible grey marks and leaving a residual grit where it touches the skin. 

Illustration by *Sarah John*

Whereas heat makes Northern types irritable, in Cairo it’s the cold and damp that gets on people’s nerves. I was at the pharmacy, one of those high-ceilinged old ones with burnished wood cabinets and flasks on the shelves, when I was drawn into an excruciating altercation. The man in front of me at the cashier was clearly a worker coming off a night shift; he looked tired, had no jacket. Over one arm he carried a clean set of clothes wrapped in plastic; one hand held a 50-pound note and the other his desired purchases: two sachets of shampoo, a packet of moist towelettes and a plastic razor, totalling around 18 Egyptian pounds ($3.30). The cashier asked for change but he didn’t have any – no-one ever does, especially cashiers.

I’ve observed this particular cashier for some time. Wry, tough, middle-aged, thick bodied, close-cropped curling grey-black hair, efficient, smart-seeming –  and of remarkably indeterminate gender. I’m not sure why I assumed that s/he was an open and strong-minded individual, but I tend to idealize Egyptians, and this time I was wrong. The worker produced no change, just stood there waiting for the situation to resolve itself, and the cashier started barking at him, mocking the paucity of his purchases and insisting he provide change, even though the 50 pounds in his hand probably represented the whole of his fortune. The man took the upbraiding, whether zen or exhausted or so accustomed to mistreatment that being gratuitously insulted in public by someone who was meant to serve him was no big deal. Without apparent anger or impatience, he simply set the merchandise on the counter in front of the cashier, made eye-contact with him/her, and turned to leave. 

At this point, I rallied and told the cashier to stop shouting (though s/he already had) and tried to get the man to come back. I would pay for his things, I told the cashier and by god would have whatever change I had coming to me. How dare s/he treat a customer, especially a decent working man, this way? Everyone in the pharmacy was now giving me that special look reserved for people who lose it in public. It’s part feigned apathy (since getting involved too soon might spoil the show), part horror-tinged mirth, part rapid assessment, as the tail end of this look is a flick-of-the-eye interaction with the others who are watching. How far, everyone is thinking, will this particular nut go?  

In my broken yet elegiac Arabic I proceeded to tell whoever was listening that I’d frequented this pharmacy of late because of its beauty and old world graciousness. I see now, I told them, that it was only the décor, and that the people working here were too modern for manners and kindness. I couldn’t recall the Arabic word for ‘disappointed’ and ‘tortured’ came out instead. ‘I am very tortured,’ I told them, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t crying. The cashier spluttered. The man paused for a moment at the door, not because of me, but because of the rain. He put his plastic bundle on his head and moved on.

Following his example, I placed my unpurchased merchandise on the counter and loped confusedly out after him, thinking there must be something I could or should have done. He probably turned somewhere because I lost him, but the look he gave the cashier as he handed back his things stayed with me. I think it was humility; a compliance born more of pity than rancour, reflecting not weakness but clarity, a look so rare it nearly defies definition. But I tend to idealize Egyptians and, again, I may be wrong.

Maria Golia also writes for The Middle East, reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004).

New Internationalist issue 418 magazine cover This article is from the December 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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