A few misunderstandings

Trip Start Sep 29, 2012
Trip End Jul 01, 2013

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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The weekend

Latching onto this Halloween thing as an excuse for a publicity initiative, Nassya decide to put on a treasure hunt along our local high street to get people signing up for this new Egyptian social network. We're not entirely convinced at the idea of imposing an unknown festival of ungodly and American origins on our local community, but the motive is right. Printing some stuff for the occasion at a local stationers I’m amusingly asked if my mother is Lebanese, or half Lebanese, given the fact that I’m conducting myself in (stumbling) Arabic. I rattle off the usual 'I study fusHa’ response, to which the kindly old shop owner leads me to a seat, opens his broadsheet and has me read words at random off the page (can you read this word? El horraya. And this word? Ra’ees. And this word? Etc etc) to great praise until I find a reason to escape. After a month of being laughed at and misunderstood, finally some encouragement! I skip out of the shop and almost trip over a pothole. The passers-by resume staring at the ‘ubbiyud’ (whitey) and I realise that in this case, a quarter Lebanese is probably the closest I’ll ever get to the ‘I thought you were a native speaker’ linguist’s Mecca.


Later that night we hit the high street and cause even more confusion than usual as we sport our brand new Nassya t-shirts written in Arabic (‘but you’re not Egyptian!’) and provide a face-painting service as the treasure hunt gets underway. The event’s a success. After, we head to a party thrown by an American over on zamalek island. We Cairo-proof ourselves for the journey between maadi and the inside of a westerner’s flat, with eccentric fancy dress costumes well hidden beneath shawls and jackets, but we forget about our odd make-up. In the taxi two guys on a motorbike pull up level with Arthur, their faces, initially curious at his blond hair, slowly turning to a dumbfounded gawp as he turns to face them. From the back seat we suddenly realise what they’re seeing: the fangs.

We find the packed top floor flat – as comically eclectic a crowd as we’re coming to expect of nights in Cairo. Among the dancing partygoers, an Egyptian in his father’s borrowed General outfit, 2 young Japanese diplomats in training inside a life-size Stella bottle and under a Bedouin headscarf respectively, and by chance 3 other people from the English west country, all of us landing in the middle of the dance floor at same time, at a party on the roof of a flat in Cairo, to talk about cider and tractors.

Friday 2nd

Next morning I take the rattling metro into town and cross Tahrir to Qasar al Dobara church. I’ve been contacted the night before by Gamal, the tv recruiting agent, to ask if I can work from midday today. Like all Fridays in Tahrir, peaceful protests are going on, so being a foreigner I keep my head down and don’t hang around too long crossing the square to get to the metro entrances. Typically every entrance I try seems to be shut and I find myself skirting the edge of proceedings, when a smiling old gent in a cream suit pops up out of nowhere asking where I’m trying to get to. At my response, he informs me there’s a better metro station just round the corner from here and kindly offers to walk me there. A professor at the American University, he’s delighted to hear about my Arabic studies. As we walk I learn that tomorrow is his daughter’s wedding. In true Egyptian style, I am cordially extended an invitation. Through the impossibility of it all, I think of all the things I’ve heard about incredible Muslim weddings…

We turn off the street and I find myself in a shop, the walls stocked with shelves of bottles and files. As he sits me down and calls for tea to be made, he brings down various bottles filled with musky perfume. He’s a pharmacist, selling to the major European brands. Out comes the tea, brought by the daughter who’s getting married tomorrow. She sits down in front of me, looking surprisingly disgruntled for one getting married tomorrow and, as her father asks me how my name is spelt, produces a beautiful papyrus paper and starts inscribing my name in hieroglyphs.

Professor, wedding, pharmacist; it seems my turn has come to be swindled.

Sat in the heart of the shop and clutching a cup of tea, I start to assess my best escape. As Dr Crafty persuades me towards more perfumes, he asks for my opinion on some of his daughter’s bigger pieces. I absently indicate one, at which the huge illustrated A3 papyrus is whipped out, and still without a word uttered, the girl begins to etch my surname on the thing.

Somewhere along the line, I’ve remembered a homework set after our bartering class at school: whoever haggles for the cheapest papyrus wins. Having already established that I ‘have no money on me’, I decided to play the guy at his own game. Papyrus for free and with my name inscribed would win hands down. By this point I’m late for the tv people, so give my thanks and move to leave.

‘Oh it’s fine, just a small donation for my daughter’s work’, to which I produce my ‘only’ fiver (50p), careful not to show the contents of my purse. Suddenly the mask slips. Dr Crafty taps curtly on a pricelist on the wall which would have me pay hundreds. I insist I don’t have it. In a flash of anger, Crafty accidently shows his savvy in the swindling game: ‘but come on, that’s only, like, 15 English pounds for you’. His voice grates as he bears down on me, and the game’s not so fun anymore. I decide to cut and run, backing out of the shop convincing him I’ll return to the lair tomorrow. I leave without my booty, but happy to be out. In any case, I have successfully lumped the sneaky trader with a couple of now wasted papyruses. Mwahaha.  

I make my way back across Tahrir and find an open metro subway. Of course there’s no other station round here. There are only 2 metro lines in the whole of Cairo and I know them both. I’ll be ready next time.

Now late for work and going on vague directions that google maps couldn’t find in transliteration, I soon forget the paper-related humiliation. By huff or by scruff I find the street. A lorry goes past on the deserted road, kicking up dust, and then out of nowhere appears the agent in black suit and black shades.

What am I doing?

We walk on in the direction of the fimling location. As I understand from the explanation, it’s to be a wedding scene, at which I’ll be welcoming people. A taxi ride later, we enter the walls of the incredible Club Muhammad Ali, a luxurious private garden full of long walkways lined with flaming torches and covered with tumbling climber plants and jasmine flowers. I try not to let my jaw drop. In a glade, a tech team are setting up an incredible wedding set: tables glistening with glasses and silverware, screens and speakers around the perimeter,and in the centre, an floor-lit dance floor beneath a canopy of spotlights, beads, jewels and disco balls.  

A few hours later, a wardrobe girl dresses me in a traditional floor length dress, golden headdress, huge earrings and bur’3ah, the face piece showing just your eyes through a mask of golden coins: Princess Jasmine stuff.   

 I’m plonked at the entrance to the party where I’ll be giving out zalabia, a type of sweet, as people come and go. From down a flame lit walkway, the sound of beating drums and women ululating announces the bride and grooms’ arrival, with cameramen following the party’s progress. For all its sound system and film crew, after about half an hour the party seems suspiciously authentic. The penny drops. With some serious lack of explanation and seriously limited Egyptian Arabic comprehension on my part, I hadn’t realised I was simply asked to work at a real wedding. What goes around comes around, Mr Crafty.

Things suddenly make a lot more sense… I spend the next 4 hours on my post, handing out zalabia, being in picture after picture, and watching the incredible wedding unfold from behind my mask. From a live big band to old classical Egyptian songs, to avicci, the dancefloor (made of luminous lightpanels) is packed with swingers all night- all such natural dancers. At one point fancy dress accessories are emptied onto a table beside me - red fez hats, toy Tabaco pipes and pretend moustaches for the guys; feather bowers, fans and pretend pearl necklaces for the ladies – and the young party goers take to the floor to dance under their new guises. I find myself in a bizarre state of being both at the centre of the party, like a statue for people to come and stare at or take pictures with, and being totally cut off – more of an outsider than I’ve ever felt before. Watching the intimate occasion of someone else’s friends and family, and as people talk at me in fast Arabic over the din of music and crowds, and all the while hiding behind a gold coin mask like girls behind their higabs, I feel foreign in all senses of the word. I pass the time gawping at it all and wishing to be part of it.

I crawl into bed at midnight, proud owner of my first 250 earned Egyptian pounds.
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