I visited my friend Mostafa the tailor in his downtown shop a few weeks after Egypt’s uprising. Mostafa is in his early seventies but has always seemed old, perhaps because he’s bald and bent from his work. He lives alone, enjoys conversation and despises the Egyptian government, whom he refers to as ‘those dogs’. Nor had his opinion changed in light of recent events. ‘Still dogs,’ he said. Whenever I asked how business was, his reply was always the same: ‘The market is asleep.’ This time he said ‘It’s out cold’, with a broad and utterly toothless grin. His teeth had been removed, he told me, by a dentist who advised eating stale bread to toughen his gums in preparation for dentures.
One of Mostafa’s favourite topics is currency exchange rates, which he can recite on any given day to the farthest decimal point, offering comparisons between current and past values, what you once could buy with a drachma, riyal, lira or Egyptian pound versus now. He has mercifully learned to recognize my glazed look when these recitals last too long, but I liked to hear him talk about himself, which he did with verve, downloading the significant episodes of his life, most of which occurred in his youth.
A signature event, however, took place a few years ago. I’d begun to worry when he missed a fitting appointment and didn’t answer his phone for several days. I went to his shop and found it closed. Two weeks later it was still closed. As Mustafa never took vacations, his neighbours were as concerned as I was. One of them offered to go to Ismailia where Mustafa had a brother, to try to track him down. He found him there, recuperating from shock. Mustafa had been in an accident en route to visit his relatives. He was in a microbus with 12 passengers but was the only one to walk away from the head-on collision unscathed. On his return to Cairo he described what had happened, how he’d staggered from the corpse-strewn scene. He never spoke of it again.
Following the accident, Mustafa’s upper back was more bent than ever, but the brush with death had awakened some long-dormant aspirations. He considered marrying, and asked, only half jokingly, if I wanted to be the lucky girl. He said he wanted to start a travel agency. Then an aunt died, leaving him a flat he thought he might fix up and move into. So he went to work on both projects, in addition to his tailoring. Eventually the state refused the travel agency licence and he ended up giving his aunt’s flat to a nephew, one of several young relatives he had helped through school. As for marriage, he said he was better off a bachelor. Mustafa was upbeat, but I worried about him, that he was lonely and disappointed, that the accident had ruined his back, and that he hadn’t enough work, especially following the uprising, when business was down but prices way up. He’d always helped his family, but they’d never returned the favour. I wondered how he’d make it on his own with so few options.
So I was sitting in his dismal little shop on a torn vinyl couch, leafing through the same 20-year-old pattern books, and asked when his new teeth would be ready. ‘Just six more months,’ he said, ‘in time for Italy.’ I was surprised. Mustafa loved to travel but hadn’t been out of the country in an age. I congratulated him and asked how long he’d stay. ‘Only one day!’ he said, laughing a big pink-gummed laugh. ‘Just long enough to change banks.’ I was perplexed. ‘Those dogs in Bank X are giving me 1.425 per cent less interest that I can get at Bank Y!’ he explained.
I was still confused, but Mustafa sorted me out. It seems he had nearly a quarter of a million euros in an Italian savings account. I couldn’t imagine why he’d lie. He was toothless but he had all his marbles. I tried to look as if this news was perfectly natural, recalling his stories of trading stuff between Egypt and Europe in the Sixties, and a stint in Saudi Arabia sewing uniforms for servants in princely households. He might have invested his earnings, and had meanwhile led a Spartan existence working slowly but surely. Mustafa’s endless litanies of currency rates suddenly made sense. My poor tailor was rich. Now that was a revolutionary thought.