New Internationalist

Losing the edge

November 2009

Cairenes are expert at adapting to tough circumstances, but Maria Golia wonders when flexibility becomes compromise…

The other day I took my broken blender for repair to the bustling shop where I’d purchased it last year. I handed the plastic pitcher to the man at the maintenance desk, and showed him the problem with the gasket holding down the blade, and with the blade itself, which had dulled considerably. While he checked it, I noticed other people’s blenders on the counter, or more specifically, how dirty they were. We’re not talking a hasty wash job, a speck or two of vegetal substance, but thick accretions resulting from countless careless rinsings, entire realms of bacterial life. Startled, I re-examined my own blender and must confess that, while it was practically antiseptic compared to some of the other specimens, it was nonetheless not what you might call clean.

But clean is a relative, not absolute, condition, especially in Cairo: subject to factors ranging from sandstorms and water shortages to the cleaner’s eyesight, stamina and mood. However exacting the householders, the desert dust will eventually defeat them and many see the wisdom in not putting up too great a fight. My blender suggested I’d joined the ranks of the wise.

The maintenance man attached my pitcher to a motor and gave it a trial whirl, then deftly dismantled the mechanism at its base. He agreed that the gasket was worn and promised to replace it, but when I asked for a new blade, he looked quizzical. 

‘It works,’ he said, ‘why fix it?’

‘Because it’s dull. It used to blend better.’

‘Just let it blend longer,’ he suggested.

‘The motor overheats when you leave it on too long,’ I countered, and it was my turn to be nonplussed.

Illustration by Sarah John
Illustration by Sarah John

Maintenance people elsewhere are happy to fix things that aren’t broken, but would never refuse things that are. Not Egyptians, who must rank amongst the world’s most diligent recyclers. Against the man’s protests regarding the expense (around $10) and time the repair would take (around two weeks, insh’allah, god willing), I managed to convince him to replace both the gasket and the blade. 

I walked home from the shop amidst the rubbish and rubble of Cairo, which is constantly removed only to replenish itself yet more abundantly, like those pitchers and trays in the 1001 Nights. I noticed the usual disarray and baseline filth; I wish there were a kinder word to describe it. Even the cleaner bits would not stand up to the mildest inspection. But then again, my own flat would never pass any white – or even grey – glove test. Its high ceilings sport some cobwebs (spiders eat mosquitoes), and artistic patches of crumbling plaster owing to a leaky pipe my government landlord refuses to fix. The pale yellow walls are smudged with the passage of time, bodies and abrasive drafts of hot, gritty air. The furniture and pillows when prodded emit playful puffs of beige dust. Those hard-to-get-at corners have been ‘rounded with a little sleep’, an all-forgiving laxity of purpose familiar to inhabitants of warmer climes.

Perceptions of efficiency and cleanliness differ, I remind myself, and no one approach is necessarily right. Cairenes don’t mind a little dirt and dissolution, or sharing each other’s germs, as they were once quaintly called. It isn’t so much a matter of climate or compromise as a particular relationship to decay, which – as a part of life – must be tolerated. Everything runs downhill, including human energy: that’s a law of thermodynamics. But a law of human nature is that when something is falling apart you can’t help but dismantle it further. Think of those loose threads yanked, despite the seam that’s bound to unravel; the cuticle or fingernail ripped; even though you know it will probably bleed.

The road to destruction is shorter than the opposite direction; the signposts pass swiftly.  Suddenly you’re there.

Maria Golia is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004) and Photography and Egypt, which is published this month.

This column was published in the November 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 427

New Internationalist Magazine issue 427
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