Friday, June 24, 2011

Walking with Dr. Yasmin

“look at the fingernails—see how black they are? That’s Fungus in there!” exlaims Yasmin, an Egyptian dentist living in Dubai.

Sure enough, at the end of the old man’s wrinkled fingers were blackened fingernails, like a character out of the Lord of the Rings. He grabbed a few used glasses on the countertop and asked me what I wanted. “A cup of sugar cane, please!” While I heard Yasmin’s words, my thirst was stronger than my repulsion or disgust at the fungus in the fingernails. I put the glass to my lips, said a quick “Bismillah” or “in the name of Allah” and began drinking.

Ohhhh…the sugar rush was so satisfying; the sweet, sweet, sweet sensation of sugar cane on the tongue and down the esophagus was simply too rewarding to think about the warning of the dentist. I thought of the old adage, “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Preachers and Protests

On my way to work, the Imam’s voice from the nearby mosque was delivering a Friday-like sermon, yet today is not Friday. I caught the words “Bin-Laden” peppered intermittently. The vendors and a few seated men were paying rapt attention. As I approached my office, I asked a few men outside about the voice broadcasting on the speaker system. They explained that sometimes, the Imam teaches students about the Qur’an or religion, so was simply practicing a sermon.

When I arrived at the non-profit office upstairs, the door was closed. Apparently, they had moved and did not notify me. Oh well.

Below in the quad, one of the men I had asked earlier about the mosque broadcast approached me. It turns out he is deaf and mute. With only a few signs, he explained that he was married (pointing to his wedding ring), had four kids—two boys and two girls, who were all grown and out of the house, leaving him and his wife (he made the sign of a person with breasts) alone in the house.

I wrote my name in Arabic for him and he wrote his, Azmy. A middle-aged man with some missing teeth and short cropped hair, he signed that he has seen me walk back and forth a couple of times in the last week. As I left him, I wished him peace. I have a feeling I will see him again soon.

Protests in the metro system
A group of maybe 50-100 metro workers staged a boisterous sit-in inside Sadat metro station, starting yesterday. Not knowing what was going on, I asked a man near me for an explanation. He said the workers were demanding that the metro system director leave his post because of corruption.

The protesters had a few signs, but kept their protests civil and to chants. A young metro worker to the side explained that before Jan. 25, this kind of protest would not have been allowed or tolerated.

Friday, June 03, 2011

How much for a fridge repairman?

How much do you pay the repairman? In the US, it’s fairly straightforward. He quotes you a price and you take it or leave it. In Cairo, usually, you don’t ask for the prices before a visit. The repairman does his work, then quotes you a price. If you ask for the price before the visit, this means you are a foreigner who deserves to be screwed.

Typically, a plumber who comes for ½ an hour to an hour to repair your kitchen or bathroom pipes will usually get between 5-10 LE ($1 to $2). However, several other variables can also complicate the final price. For example, where do you live? Are you in a working class neighborhood? Or in Zamalek, where most (rich) foreigners live? How good is your Arabic? Are you a fresh arrival? Does the repairman come with an assistant? Do they take more than an hour? Are the repairs complicated?

Now, fast forward to yesterday when Showky, the fridge repairman came to fix our refrigerator, which has been acting up for the past 2 weeks or more. The freezer does not freeze and the rest of the appliance is lukewarm, causing much of our food to spoil. Before Showky arrived, my good friend Mohammed Aly’s mother had told me to pay between 80-100LE and not a guinea more. I also repeated this very statement to my Korean roommate, who has been in Cairo for a year. However, when the repairman arrived and quoted her 250LE, she asked him to drop it only 25LE to 225LE. When I arrived, I didn’t argue with him, as I thought we could renegotiate after he finished. He spent a good hour or two replacing the Freon gas, making loud knocking noises here and there during my Arabic lesson. When he was finished, he asked for his money.

When I tried to renegotiate, he became furious. The smile turned upside down. Even my tutor Mustafa tried to intervene to say that our roommate did not have the right information and had made an ill-informed decision. They spent a good five minutes or more back and forth. I decided that it was all a big waste of time, so just paid the man.

When I asked him If he would return if the fridge acted up again, he said non-chalantly, “who knows?”

He was starting to irk me, so I wished him peace, “Salam Aleykoom” and ushered him out the door.

My tutor Mustafa and I agreed on this: much of life in Cairo is like buying a T-shirt at the Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar. There’s some give and take, and no price is ever set firmly.