On my street

Yesterday: Demonstration, what demonstration? The men in the neighborhood are all glued to the football match. Al-Ahly 1, Ittihad 0.

Earlier: A man wearing a galabiyya and flip-flops, riding a rickety old bicycle the wrong way down the middle of our one-way street, texting on a neon-green smartphone.


At the Shooting Club

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?

In the women’s car

Since we’ve moved to Dokki, the defining experience of my daily life here, framing everything else, is no longer the taxi but the metro.  Specifically, the women’s car. One day I will work up the courage to take photos there (look, this tourist did it); perhaps I will tell people I am a reporter doing a story on hijab fashion for some local magazine. Actually I will be photographing not just the elaborately color-coordinated and outrageously sexy outfits some girls are wearing but mainly the amazing things people do with their higabs – my favorite is when they use them to store a used subway ticket for the exit gate, or as a nifty hands-free device to hold a cell phone. Women across all societies I’ve seen tend to be resourceful and, being generally overworked, value efficiency.

For now, from the multitasking file, just this.  On Monday I was coming home from Tahrir to Bahoos at 6:30pm and saw a woman actually doing her prayers in the subway car.  Prostrations and everything. She didn’t have a prayer rug, not even a newspaper to spread on the floor, so my first thought was that she had lost an earring and was looking for it under the seats. It was rather crowded; people had to move around to make sure she had space. But she was being as discreet as possible, facing the back wall away from the platform-side door. No one said anything until a lady walked through selling phone recharge cards. Here it comes, I thought, the question about why this prayer is so urgent that it couldn’t wait till she got off the train and at least onto the platform. The vendor stepped around the praying woman, then said, “Honey, the qibla [direction of Mecca] isn’t that way at all, it’s in the totally opposite direction!” The praying woman looked up in mid-prostration. “Really?” Other passengers seemed to confirm.  Then she got up, turned herself around so her hands protruded dangerously under the feet of various bemused passengers, and continued; someone gave her a plastic bag to mark her space so people wouldn’t step on her. Everyone got very solicitous. Even I found myself looking in my bag for a newspaper.

Then we got to the next stop, and the praying lady got off! I believe she had ridden three stops, same as me. But maybe God couldn’t wait. Or maybe (like many extreme multitaskers) she needed to prove it could be done?

Children's books on display at the Diwan bookstore, Zamalek