The zipper adventure

So I decided to make a day of walking-errands around Maadi. I examined the map, figured out my intended path, and headed off. It’s been getting progressively hotter here, and our temperatures have been reaching highs of 96-101 degrees. It may be “dry” heat, but it’s still heat and walking around helps you realize just how hot 100 degrees can feel.

I headed to the Community Services Association (CSA) first. They offer expats a small library, gym, coffee café, small gift shop, clothing consignment shop, and all types of activities, from outings, to cooking classes, to events for kids. My objective was to get the latest monthly magazine and pick up their event schedule for June. I perused the craft fair they had in the courtyard, but managed to not buy anything (knowing I’d have to carry it around with me all afternoon helped in my decision-making process).

From CSA, I walked along the road by the railroad tracks, past several small florist shops which tend to be small glass greenhouses. These are very common all over Maadi, but I’m waiting to buy plants until we move into Zamalek.

I crossed over the tracks and came up to the Maadi Grand Mall (MGM). Ron and I had come here once before to check it out. It’s an indoor mall, four or five levels, filled with some jewelry shops, book stores, toy stores, and electronics, but mostly with women’s shoes and clothing shops (some western wear but mostly typical Egyptian Islamic clothing – which, although it’s all-covering, is still colorful and shapely). My objective here was to find a tailor and get the zipper on my carry-on bag replaced. I had my Arabic sentence all ready to go, “Ayza suusta gideeda, min fadlak.” (I need a new zipper, please.) It was about 11:30am, and I’d say maybe half of the stores were open. Luckily a tailor in the basement was open and I walked in and said my well-practiced sentence. The tailor and his son (presumably) just stared at me. I repeated it, used the bag with a broken zipper as a prop, but something wasn’t going through. Luckily there was another customer in the shop and she helped and relayed to me that they could repair it for 7LE (~ $1.40) and it would be ready in an hour. I handed the bag over with a smile (universal language), and walked out. I’m getting a tad frustrated over this language thing.

Initially my plan was to drop the bag off and come get it several days later. I mean, nothing’s ever ready “in an hour” back home. I was going to walk on to the Maadi public library, then take a cab home. Now I had to come back here. So I decided to brave the heat, walk on to the library and skip the cab. I walked the 15-20 minutes to the library and stood in line at the guard shack outside the gates of the library. I found I had to pay 2LE to get in; fine. I walked in and spoke with a woman at the desk to find out how I get a library card. Again, some language issues, but I managed to learn that it costs 55LE (~ $11) per year to join and I have to bring in a photo for my ID and my passport. Bummer. With my free time I’m going through books like crazy (I’m on my eleventh one now, and realize I didn’t bring enough with me to hold out until our final shipment arrives). I was allowed to look around the library, but not take any books out, so I checked out the artwork on the walls, saw the conference rooms, and at one point had the guard chase after me when I (unintentionally) started to wander up the stairs to the roof. I left without books, but at least knowledge of how to get books. (The embassy actually has a nice collection in their lending library, so I did make it there a few days later to stock up.)

I meandered back to MGM, having to play several rounds of Frogger along the way. I realized that I have not yet managed to embrace the Egyptian way of crossing these streets. My method involves a lot of looking, gauging, hesitating, false-starting and then eventually dashing. Their method is to look and walk. No gauging, no running, just walk calmly in front of the on-coming bus. I may be too type-A for that.

I got back to the mall around 12:15pm and wandered around a bit to pass the time. By now, the remaining half to two-thirds of the shops were finally opening. Buckets were out, sudsy water was being scrubbed over the shop floors, merchandise was being put on display, window dressings were being changed. It was noon, Cairo was waking up.

I retrieved my bag, with newly fixed zipper, paid him, thanked him and began the walk home. I certainly could have taken a cab (it would have been less than $2), but I decided to push through and walk the ~20 minutes home. In hindsight I should have taken a cab – I was feeling the heat by now and exhaustion was coming on, but then again, had I taken a cab I wouldn’t have passed the little lawn-chair man. As I was walking by the Maadi House (it’s an expat “club” with a restaurant, pool, kids’ playground, etc. and we sometimes go there on Thursday nights for dinner), I must have mopped my brow as someone suddenly said, “Very hot.” I hadn’t really noticed anyone before this, but when he spoke I turned and saw this tiny man wearing a white turban and a filthy tan gallibaya, perched on a white plastic lawn chair, smiling with his remaining three teeth that were the same color as his skin. He must have been about 112 years old. I smiled at him and nodded, and he threw his head back and laughed and laughed with glee. I’m not sure why. But I couldn’t help but smile for the rest of the walk home.

Interactions like this aren’t overly common. I think mostly I get a lot of stares, but I’m good at ignoring those. However, I had one interaction in the cafeteria at the embassy the other day. It was mid-afternoon and I was passing time waiting for the shuttle to take me back home, so I bought a bottle of water with the intention of sitting and reading. The cashier was counting out his money drawer when I brought the bottle to him. I held it up and said, “Mumkin?” (Can I?) He smiled and said yes and rang it up. It came up 2LE and he said something to me in Arabic. I was fumbling through my bills (still have to get used to them) so I looked up, saw the price, and said, “Itneen gineh?” (Two pounds?) He repeated his sentence with a smile. I still wasn’t getting it. Finally he leaned over to me and said, “You are very beautiful.” I laughed, said I thought he was telling me “itneen gineh,” paid and went and sat down. I found the whole thing rather funny; I was so focused on trying to hear what he said, but mistakenly pre-assuming what it was, that my brain couldn’t comprehend his “Inti (something)” comment. I told Ron later; he didn’t laugh. He was quiet for a moment, then pointed out that in certain areas here if he made the same comment to an Egyptian woman he’d be attacked. I couldn’t deny it. There is a huge double-standard here. My thought is that as long as no one touches me or makes me feel uncomfortable, then I can just ignore the comments. I have heard stories here of random comments going beyond that, to actual grabbing and touching. I do find it mystifying that in this culture Egyptian men would never dream of grabbing an Egyptian woman’s behind, but there is a presumption among some men that Western women are “virgins or vamps” (only not the former). This is certainly not exclusive to Egypt, or even the non-Western world. So, depending on my mood, Ron’s mood, and the nature of the comment, we will respond (or ignore) accordingly. And, as always, I will continue to improve on my Arabic.

CORRECTION: After reading this entry, Ron told me I was wrong… the Egyptian men who would grab at someone would not distinguish between a Western woman and an Egyptian one – they’re equal-opportunity grabbers. So I stand corrected (but sadly not relieved). Also, the men who would assault someone are typically younger and it becomes almost a game to see what they can get “away” with. As I said, I’ve never experienced anything improper, nor have I felt uncomfortable anywhere (although I was definitely hyper-aware on the subway – as I am in any city). I told Ron that I would continue to be aware of my surroundings and will watch out for any seemingly opportunistic young men – Ron told me to just watch out for everyone. I wonder how long it will be before he brings home a burlap bag for me to wear?