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Everyone has their New Year’s rituals. Mine is born of the conviction that nothing is worse than dullness, so each January I take my kitchen knives to be sharpened. My landlord used to do it for me, but he died; and for a while I relied on Cairo’s travelling knife-sharpeners, who circulated on bicycles they’d rigged up with a whetstone between the handlebars. They’re gone now too, leaving only one ageing gent in a covered market several blocks from where I live.
Like the rest of belle époque Cairo, the market is but a shadow of its former self. Once a glorious glass and wrought-iron pavilion, its neat lanes bright with produce, its shattered roof is now covered in garbage, leaving the jumble of foodsellers in a fetid penumbra. I made my way bravely past slabs of liver quivering on scales, through tight passages lined with hanging cow carcasses still sporting furry tails. The market was damp and swollen, the lanes greased with mud as the roof dripped a light winter rain, splotching tomatoes and tangerines, and the lamb’s heads set out in rows on long tables, terribly white, their eyes shut and ears cocked as if praying very hard.
The knifesharpener’s place was no more than a dank indentation in a passage. It stood opposite a makeshift mosque, whose washing and toilet facilities were apparently located in a broken platform above our heads, because I heard the sound of taps and, more to the point, felt the wetness leaking from above, and caught the pungent cumin-scented whiff of the faithfuls’ pee dripping on to my hair and into the mud. I hastily surrendered my cutlery to the knife sharpener, a knobby-faced Vulcan in a tattered sweater the colour of dirt. His flint wheel was coated in reddish brown ooze; yanking a frayed, loose fan belt he set it in motion. The wheel wobbled on its axis, held in place by bits of hammered tin and the will, one imagines, of god. He gingerly applied a blade and a few sparks arched dejectedly into the damp. Come back in an hour, he said.
The nearest café was the Liberté, another belle époque relic, an airy hall with wood-framed windows opened to the street. A turbaned shoe shiner squatted near the door in the blue pool of his galabiyya. With an eyebrow he asked if I wanted a shine. I responded with an imperceptible nod to my mud-splattered boots. He took them and placed a scrap of cardboard beneath my feet to keep them warm. Like several other habitués, I sat in my socks, alone, lulled by the background conversation and the song on the radio, sung by a long-deceased and beloved crooner named Abdel Halim Hafez.
When he returned my gleaming shoes I complimented him extravagantly.
‘You are an artist,’ I told him.
‘No, oh princess, I am a fellah, a peasant,’ he said, laughing, in Arabic.
‘No really, I swear,’ I insisted, as is expected.
‘Art? You want art? Listen to the man singing.’
‘Yes, of course, Abdel Halim, the black nightingale, you call him, isn’t it, el-arnabeet iswid?’
I delivered this in my best appreciative-andknowing- foreigner accent, only to be met with confusion. The man at the table beside me who had been following the conversation cleared up the matter.
‘Anabeel, not arnabeet, ya mazmozelle.’
Apparently I’d been calling Abdel Halim ‘the black cauliflower’ for years.
I returned to the market, where the old man was waiting, eager that I test his handiwork by running a finger along the blades. I did, and it drew blood. Before I could react, he grabbed my finger, spat on it, and rubbed it with a corner of his sweater. I freed the hand in order to take out some cash, but he grabbed it again, imploring me not to pay. We each insisted for a while as my finger bled, staining the fifty-pound note I’d extracted, blotting the writing on it, a man’s name drawn several times in flowery script, no doubt by a woman in love.
Walking home, I did my best to avoid the sludge puddles gathered on the sewer-less streets. Downtown reverberated with the evening prayer, a cacophony of pious howling. Turning a corner I nearly stumbled on two women sound asleep on the wet ground beneath a shop awning, leaning against each other’s rounded shoulders over a crate filled with straw and some eggs. On the stairs of my building I found two more ladies, one of them giving a large brown breast to her child. This is Cairo 2010: the mingling of flesh and muddy asphalt, the warm browns and dull greys blending into one heaving, shapeless, self-replicating mass.