Friday, April 25, 2003

People-watching in Mohendessin

I live and work in a suburb of Cairo, an area that was a planned community of big lots with houses and beautiful trees that was built in the 20's and 30's. The houses are disappearing and there are more apartment buildings with the attached decreasing parking, but it's possible to be here and almost never go into downtown Cairo at all. Having to work at the family businesses since my husband's death, and having my kids living in Manhattan to attend university, I've tended to go to meetings, offices, and so on until the end of the day, and then go home to my dogs and parrots and computer. Much of my socialising is online with my friends and family scattered all over the world. Last week, though, a woman friend of mine was downtown doing errands as I was finishing a meeting and she suggested that we meet for dinner at a restaurant in Mohendessin that has wonderful salads.

I was finished first and my driver dropped me off at the place where I would meet Mona. We were coming back together so I sent Mohamed home with the car. (Driving in Cairo can be terrifying to the novice, but parking in most parts of the city is absolutely impossible, so one needs a driver to drive the car while you are in the bank, embassy, whatever.....they really should be called parkers.) We were meeting at a Danish coffeeshop/restaurant on the main street of Mohendessin, another section of Cairo that had been farm plots for engineers in the 50's(hence the name: Mohendessin=engineers). Now the main streets are filled with shops and restaurants and automobile showrooms. The ground floor of Trianon has small tables that look out onto the sidewalk, while larger tables are upstairs. I decided to wait for Monah downstairs and have a glass of iced tea. It was a perfect spot for people watching, and I realised how much I've missed just sitting and watching the theatre that is Cairo.

There I was in a perfect European coffeeshop, looking out at a busy street that could have been Los Angeles, or Athens, almost anywhere warm....but the mix was pure Egypt. I sat there for about half an hour and recorded in a notebook the characters that passed by my table. First to note were the sunglass salesmen, just like the ones in New York or any other big city, with a table filled with a million varieties of eyewear, most of which wouldn't protect your eyes from a lightbulb....but very nice looking. Business wasn't too bad. A balloon/inflated animal salesman ambled down the street in a cloud of sharks, birds, balls, and dolphins. He'd wave them at kids to tempt them, but wasn't having much luck. He'd probably do better later in the evening when the kids were crabbier and the parents desperate for anything to quiet them down. A group of young mothers wandered by windowshopping. My eye was caught by one of the group, a girl in her early 20's in a long pink skirt, a pink blouse and a pink headscarf and draped over her shoulders. She had a baby in a Snugli, one of those carrying pouches like kangaroos have, and the baby was tugging at her scarf as she walked along chatting with her friends. Something about hegab (wearing a headscarf and long sleeves and skirt) in pink with a Snugli....I don't know why, but it really delighted me.

The next person I really noticed must have been a student. She was likely the same age as the young mother, but she had sort of tossed a white scarf over her hair and around her neck as if in an afterthought. She was wearing a light blue shirt, a long denim skirt and black sneakers, reading a book as she strode a hurry to be somewhere. At 6 pm, the sidewalk was empty enough to do this. Four hours later, it would be full. At the same time, families were wandering by that could be seen in any shopping mall in the US. Teenage girls in jeans and t-shirts, mothers with toddlers and strollers, all in totally "western" clothing (since when does denim have a location?). A totally Egyptian individual came swooping along the sidewalk then, a tea seller in a pale green galabeya and a white turban, balancing his glasses of hot dark amber tea on an aluminum tray. He obviously had his tea stall somewhere to my left and his clients to my right. About 10 minutes later, he swooped back with his tray filled with empty glasses. Meanwhile an itinerant shoeshine man wandered down and set up shop for a few minutes by a group of motor scooters with boxes for delivering pizza. He squatted on one box that he carried on a strap, while the customers placed their shoes on another box that was lined with pots for various polishes. A boy on a bicycle came by with a basket fastened to the back filled with bread and pretzels. The basket, made from palm branches, was much wider than the bike and he had to be careful of his path. Finally as Mona arrived at the coffeeshop, there was an old man hobbling along with a cane, dressed in a slightly dusty whitish galabeya, about the same colour as his beard. He was muttering to himself and taking little notice of people around him. Later, as we had our salads at a window table above, I saw the old man again, working his way back down the street, and the boy with the bread basket was weaving among taxis and other cars. I have always been in awe of the bicycle bread men who weave through traffic, sometimes with palm racks of bread balanced on their heads.

Caesar salad, cobb salad, ice tea and a lovely piece of cheescake for dessert since we'd been so good at having salads. We paid downstairs at the register, joking with the cashier because our waiter was new and having a hard time getting his checks sorted out. Then we left to go back to Maadi. After five minutes I realised that I'd left my mobile phone sitting on the chair next to the cashier and we returned in a panic. Cairo, a city of 18 million people, has no telephone book, so a mobile phone with the numbers entered into the memory is worth its weight in gold to the owner....but is just another phone to a finder. The cashier had found it and was waiting for me to show up. "Don't worry," he reassured me. "People leave all sorts of things here, but they can always come back and find them." I love this country.