Ramadan’s End

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Today’s the day for getting my Alexandrian life in order, at least as much as I can at this point in the Muslim calendar. I have a list of stuff I need: groceries most of all, and a lot of household things. I’ve found tableware, forks, knives and spoons; a complete set of dishes EXCEPT for dinner plates. Only one of those and that might be a problem if I have visitors. I’m not expecting any of those for a while; so I’ll deal, but I plan to notify the Fulbright folks about that shortcoming as soon as the Eid is over. I could use a proper set of sheets for the bed, too, and that’s one of the reasons I’m off on a scouting mission this morning. I head out and take the opportunity to introduce myself to the “bawwaab” (doorman) in the vestibule; he’s talking to two other men and hands are shaken all around. I ask whether the shops are open today and receive a response in the affirmative. I thank them all and set off.

I begin by retracing my steps from last night, following my street until it intersects the larger road and then walking along the tram tracks until I can cross over to the other side and walk in the shade. It’s about ten AM and there is a moist wind off the ocean, but that doesn’t cut much of the heat, which is beginning to build. There are clouds in the sky today, but none in front of the sun. I’m wearing jeans, running shoes and a stripped cotton shirt. No point in trying to fake out the Egyptian public; they’d take me for a westerner even if I were wearing a galabiyah, so why even try.

This tack has the effect of sparking responses from people on the street, most of them positive. Usually, It’s “Hallu hau air YOU?” I respond in either English or Arabic as the mood strikes me and it’s a sort of game that goes on between Egyptians of a certain economic stratum and foreigners. They want to show that they learned some English and that they’ve marked you as “not from these here parts.” Okay. It’s not a test, but you get “A” for effort. I even got cat called last night on my way home. Kissing noises made behind my back. Gee. Thanks. Or were you calling your cat? Most of the stuff like that you just ignore. Physical intimidation (unless you’re female) is relatively rare, although one of the Fulbright students who spoke at our DC orientation described an incident in which she was seriously groped.

Arab societies are macho and patriarchal in a major way. That point hit me while I was channel surfing last night: a lot of the channels on which traditional programming appears (Koran readings, classical music, programs from the Arab Gulf States particularly) are either single sex or bereft of women all together. On Egyptian programs, men and women often appear together, however, and in some comedy shows (think bad Jerry Lewis) actually involve non-intimate physical contact between genders.

Anywho, my aim this morning is to locate two things: first a decent grocery store, and then a shopping mall (shudder) where I can get some household basics: sheets and towels. About a kilometer along the main road I spy a grocery store that also seems to have lots of household items, so I mark its location mentally and continue on, trying to find this mall. The next person to offer a greeting is an Alexandrian cop, who says “Welcome in Egypt.” Okay. My experience is that the cops in Egypt generally don’t initiate conversations with people, unless the person is known to them. They are very considerate in this regard. This guy is sort of young so I return his greeting in Arabic. I ask him if I might ask him a question (which I realize I’m already doing…) and, in no doubt seriously fractured Arabic, ask him where the shops at San Sebastian are. I get a puzzled look and he does what any of us would do in a similar situation: he asks me to repeat the question. I repeat my question and he asks, “What shops?” I repeat the name: “San Sebastian.”

“Nope,” he responds. “Don’t know that one.” What’s the name again?” I repeat it.
“Ah,” he says. “You mean San Stefano.”

Of course I do. I apologize to him for the mistake. “No problem,” he says. “They’re right across the street. The entrance is around the side of that building,” pointing over my shoulder to a huge modern tower. I thank him and cross the tram tracks and walk toward the building. I notice storefronts bearing European and American brand names (Ooh! Levis!) and also see that there are uniformed guards standing at the entrances to the interior. Some people are entering and bypassing the metal detectors that are a common feature in most “public” buildings: hotels; larger shops like this one, large post offices, and the like. It’s clear that those entering the building work there and that the places are not yet open for business. I approach one of the guards and ask when the shops open. He tells me it’s another hour before they open. Not until twelve noon. I thank him and decide I don’t want to wait around for that long.

I retrace my steps and go back to the grocery store. I walk in, grab a shopping cart, and start looking over the offerings. The organizational principle isn’t readily apparent, so I take out my list and review what it is I think I need, at least to start. I also realize that I might have forgotten a few things: is there a can opener? A pair of scissors? A cutting board? I need to check on those before I spend money. I begin to load the cart and find all of what I need and then some. I see some things not on my list that it would be nice to have, but I remember that I’m going to have to schlep this stuff for a third of a mile and it’s hot out. I take my purchases to the cashier (electronic code reading cash register and all). The young woman rings it all up and tells me what the damage is: two hundred eighty-eight. Hmm, I think, that’s more than fifty bucks. I take out my cash and hand her a two hundred lira note and a one hundred lira note. She shakes her head. “Two hundred eight eighty,” she repeats (unless otherwise noted, all conversations are translated from Arabic). I show her my cash and she takes the two hundred pound note and points to a ten. Oh. Okay. Now the foreigner gets it: Two hundred and eight eighty (208.80). Just like in English. Well, how about that!

The next problem is finding out how long they’re open today. I ask her when the store closes. That gets a blank look. She indicates she doesn’t understand. I run over the sentence in my head and try a re-phrasing. Still no good.

“Okay,” I say, “Your store is open until what hour this afternoon? Three? Four?”
“Oh.” Now we’re making progress. “Two o’clock.” Great, thanks.”

While we were talking a young boy has packed my purchases up in way too many plastic bags (these things are EVERYWHERE in the Middle East and the people who sell them out to be made to go out and collect every single one found on the street, hanging from tree limbs, floating in rivers and streams and then EAT them! What a blight they are!). He wants to carry them home for me, I think, but I say no thanks, hand him a tip and pick them up myself.

A ten minute perspiration inducing walk gets me back to my front door and into the cool shade of the entryway. Tawfiq, the doorman, is there to open the elevator door and usher me inside. Half an hour later, everything is put away and I sit down to lunch. Now, even if the stores are closed tomorrow (the “official” start of the Eid), at least I won’t starve.

Things are coming together slowly, it appears. I still have to find out what train stop I get off at when I go to the library this coming week and my internet connection still has to get sorted out. Fortunately, I have been able to hook onto an unsecured link belonging to someone nearby. It’s a weak link, and not always available, but at least I have some contact. I just hope it doesn’t belong to the Russian Embassy, which is just across the street from my building. I can look right into their compound, but they seem to keep a very low profile. No monster vodka parties or anything like that. Maybe they’re all on vacation.

I’m going back out after the sun gets lower to see if the mall stores are still open. Unlikely, though; people are still fasting and like to get home in early afternoon so they can prepare the iftar meal and eat it as soon as the sun sets. I would really like to have a towel to dry on. It takes way too long with my handkerchief. Oops. Too much information.

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