Another scene I haven’t dared to photograph for the multitasking file: On the playground at Nadi El-Seid (the Shooting Club, which we’ve reluctantly joined, not for rifle training but because we live almost next door and it has actual swings and seesaws whereas there is so little usable free outdoor public space in this city — people who can’t afford to join a club sometimes take their children for picnics in traffic medians) there are little kids aged maybe 2 to 5, accompanied by mommies or daddies or babysitters. (The youngest babysitter I talked to turned out to be 11: a muhaggaba girl who served as live-in nanny for a fairly sophisticated 4-year-old from Mohandiseen. She was as surprised by the conversation as I was: where was my kids’ nanny, and what did I mean I didn’t need one because I was at the club myself?) When age doesn’t tip you off, you can tell the mommies from the nannies by the designer sunglasses (not always – some members seem pretty middle class on first view, which is actually shocking considering the reputed 100,000 LE or $16K lifetime joining fee for Egyptians, which could be some people’s entire savings) and also because they are so busy training their children to manage their time efficiently. Three times in two brief afternoons I have witnessed the following: a mom running around behind her child clutching a plastic container with a fork sticking out. As the child is (literally!) climbing a jungle gym or going down a slide, the mom reaches up, trying to catch the wee one and feed him or her a bite of TupperSupper. Because nutrition can’t wait. Because stuffing in that one bite is more important than training a kid to sit down at a table to eat.
This behavior pattern answers my toddler daughter’s question: “Mommy, why is there a piece of pasta on the carousel?” But it raises other questions. I won’t get into the nadi (club) culture, and how much of their lives people might be sacrificing to bring their children to the club, and why; we can save that for another post; maybe I’ll take some pix under the guise of photographing my kids. But can we talk about the deeply bizarre food culture? Okay, according to Amitav Ghosh (in In an Antique Land, also probably somewhere in S.D. Goitein), Egyptians have been ordering takeout since at least the twelfth century. Today, they make the Americans I know look like Slow Food devotees (although granted the Americans I know may be atypical – I hear some people do eat things that come individually wrapped, and what about those diehard commuters with glove-compartment microwaves?) Except for Ramadan iftar, I don’t know that Cairene families actually sit down to eat meals together very often. Or sit down to eat at all. Blame it on the long and fragmented work days, the snarly traffic, the implausible commutes. Credit it to the range and quality of street food available, including dozens of kinds of sandwich (liver! french fries! moussaka!), most of them made with fresh ingredients and quite nutritious and inexpensive. Blame it on the contrasting priciness of formal restaurants: when people do sit down to hang out, it’s for much cheaper coffee or tea. None of which, still, explains why you would leave so little time for your three-year-old to eat dinner and play on the slide that you would think it’s a good idea for her to do these two things simultaneously. Maybe we need to talk about nadi culture, or at least upper-middle-class aspirational Cairo parenting culture, after all?