I read these days about how the global crisis is encouraging people to cultivate that great, albeit old-fashioned quality known as thrift. Several ‘how-to’ books have been released on the subject (Live Well, Spend Less and Eat Well With Leftovers for instance) as if the knowledge of how to live according to one’s means as opposed to one’s compulsions was a forgotten science. While people in so-called first world cities may be coming to terms with overspending, in places like Cairo austerity is a way of life, and its own reward. It’s not that people lack material desires, only that they are willing to satisfy them with pragmatic simplicity, consuming without being consumed.
Making-do is a Cairene trait I can relate to, not least since it reflects my upbringing in a working-class American family of first generation immigrants. But also because I found the whole consumerist project, with its blaring advertisements and hypnotic slogans, a debasement of art and even life itself. I remember what a joy it was, when I arrived in Cairo in 1980, to find a place innocent of fast-food franchises, where the only things conspicuously consumed were fresh disks of wholewheat bread, where everything that broke was fixed a dozen times and then ingeniously recycled as something else, where the streets were filled with cars from every era, including Model-Ts. Entire herds of traffic-stopping camels could be seen crossing a Nile bridge, and horse- and donkey-drawn vehicles were given the right of way. People were so generous with the little that they had, it was as if they believed their wealth would only multiply by giving it away.
I discovered a kind of shop I’d never seen before, and that reminded me of medieval tinkers, the travelling salesmen and women who carried all manner of goods from town to town and house to house. This shop sells nothing in particular but everything in general: penknives, alarm clocks, telephones, ironing boards, incense, tea pots, transistor radios, screw-drivers, you name it. One of these stores is near my building, tiny and crammed with treasures. People linger before its windows deciphering the jumbled display of all things useful and cheap, a selection designed to appeal to those for whom even necessities are a kind of luxury.
I go to this shop often, I confess, because the man who runs it bears an uncanny resemblance to Errol Flynn: the same cast of eye, the same build, the same breeziness of speech and movement. Sometimes I buy things, but mostly we share movie downloads, which make the rounds of Cairo with remarkable efficiency. Thanks to a handful of locals, the films get subtitled in Arabic, and many an Egyptian has learned a kind of English this way, by watching them, as is customary here, over and over again.
The other day Errol was waiting on an elderly man who was seated on a stool in front of the counter. He wore an ancient Rolex and a Safari suit he must have had tailor-made in the 1970s. His hands, draped over an unpretentious wooden walking stick, trembled lightly. Errol treated him with the deference afforded the elderly here, but also the humility, however real or feigned, people of his class often feel they owe the well-to-do. That the man’s fortunes clearly belonged to the past did not matter. His bill, I overheard, came to a little more than a hundred Egyptian pounds (around $18). ‘But for you, sir,’ said Errol, ‘a special discount of 10 pounds.’ With a deep sigh, the man unbuttoned his breast pocket and pulled out a wallet that had seen better days. He counted the crisp 20-pound notes once for himself and once as he handed them to Errol, who promised to have the things sent over to his house.
When he left, Errol told me he lived on our street, but I said I’d never seen him. ‘He doesn’t come out much anymore, said Errol, ‘but as you see, even the rich want a bargain these days.’
‘He’s probably as broke as everyone else,’ I suggested, ‘only worse, since he’s used to having more.’
‘Broke’ said Errol, ‘is a mind condition. If I eat today, I am rich. If I see you,’ he added slyly, ‘I am rich.’
‘What about seeing that old fellow?’ I countered
‘He reminds me I am young,’ said Errol. ‘So you see? I am Egyptian. I am always rich.’