Because living in Cairo is like balancing an open bottle of gasoline on your nose while holding a lit match in your mouth (exhilarating and pointlessly dangerous), because everyone has had nightmare stories of their bawabs and neighbours, because I’ve left this place and hopefully my neighbours will ever find me (ever, ever) again, I’ve decided to write this very stereotypical account of my beloved, decrepit apartment in Zamalek over the past five years.
Every morning we’d wake up to the sound of children screaming in the school courtyard, as the headmaster yelled into the mic: ‘Yalla ya 7omar enta we howa, tay7a el gomhoreya!’*
Followed by a bizarre medley of ‘Boshret Kheir/National Anthem’, ‘S&M’, ‘Sexy and I know it’ and ‘Sexy Bitch’, to which the kids did their morning aerobics. This was quite possibly the only sex education they got.
Every night we’d fall asleep to the sound of drunken shishifoufou idiots arguing with the parking attendants of the bar next door, or with each other, or – on one occasion – a wall, screaming ‘Ana mesh sakran yabn el a7ba!’. Wall did not respond, so drunk Foufou peed on it. Or that one time, someone took a gun and fired it into the air because of the following dialogue:
‘A7a, tesada2 ennak 3*rs?’
‘Ana mesh 3*rs yabn el m*tn*ka!’
‘La2 enta 3*rs!’
‘Bet2ool 3aleya 3*rs? A7a’. Takes gun out. Shoots. Logical conclusion.
Every time I’d try to park, I couldn’t, because even double parking in Zamalek is a luxury, and the only spot free on the entire street was where CrayCray parked. CrayCray is the old woman next door who would park her car between the first and second row, thus taking up two whole spots. If you tried to, she’d throw things on your car roof, then affectionately call you a sharm**t as you tried to flee the rain of rubbish she’d throw at you. Every morning at 7AM, without fail, she would then rev up the car engine and push on the gas incessantly till the entire neighbourhood woke up. Then she’d go back to sleep.
One night, after two desperate drives around the street with no parking spot in sight, I decided to take my chances and parked next to her car. I figured – since it was 2AM, she’d be fast asleep and I’d be safe. Nope.
A bucketful of ice landed on my car roof and window to the high-pitched, hyena-like screams of ‘YA SHARM**TA YA BENT EL WESKHA BETA3MELY EH YA MAAAMAAAA?’
I got out of the car and stared at her, and in then in a moment of inspiration, decided to respond in a language she understood. So I started singing at her:
‘She’s crazy and she likes it/Loca Loca Loca!’ and then ran for cover as her screams pierced the winter air.
Then there was that unfortunate incident when I met my second-floor neighbour, who seemed attractive and had several friends in common, and asked me out on a date. I made the mistake of giving him my number, only to receive the following messages after one brief coffee date:
‘Hello bunny rabbit’
‘Do you miss me, bunny rabbit?’
‘How is bunny rabbit today?’
‘BUNNY RABBIT ANSWER MEEEEEE’
‘Tayeb what about poodle? You like poodle, bunny rabbit?’
‘BUNNY WHY YOU NO CALL ME’
Thus, he became affectionately known as the bunny rabbit killer and I spent several months sneaking out of the building in sunglasses and a big hat to avoid running into him.
Then there was the glorious revolution, which Zamalek took to like salmon to the sea: the citizen checkpoint set up on my street with Molotov cocktails made of Chivaz and Smirnoff, where everyone suddenly had their grandfather’s collector samurai sword/hunting rifles/designer golf clubs/full-on leather outfits that looked more David Beckham circa Gucci phase than dangerous thug.
My favourite was the checkpoint at Gezirah Club, where we were stopped once by a middle-age crisis man fully decked in Harley Davidson gear and a walkie talkie worth one year’s rent. With his legs practically spread-eagled across the road, he demanded our IDs, sniffed at our Alexandrian home addresses, and refused entry because we weren’t Zamalek enough. We proceeded to hurl keywords at him: lido, coffee bean, the Pub, Tante Foufette, Sami El Adl, Uncle Ramzi, ay haga, and he let us in after a 15-minute rant about his stocks and shares that would change the world .
Then there was the fact while all of Cairo was under curfew, Zamalek’s pubs and bars were open and bursting with revellers ordering cocktails a la ‘Monhara fil Tahrir’, as helicopters circulated overhead and you could hear the roaring sound of Tahrir protestors over the Nile, and gunshots firing in Imbaba and Shobra, yet somehow people were drinking and laughing their way through this terrifying reality via their own shishi coping mechanism.
Or that time when I woke up one morning to find a stranger making pancakes in my kitchen. Some foreigners had been kicked out of the Hilton and Safir Hotels, and Pancake man was taking refuge in our flat till he found a safe hotel. So I had pancakes and went to Tahrir. Later that day, the bawab knocked to say – rather embarrassedly – that the neighbours had complained that we were harbouring foreigners.
I looked at him. He looked at me.
I said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, we have no foreigners here’, as pancake man passed behind me and cheerfully yelled out ‘Sabah El Kheir!’
Bawab looked at me. I looked at him. He shrugged and left.
Or that time I was supposed to join my friends in Tahrir, but rumours had circulated that food was running out in Cairo, so I went to Alfa Market to stock up (what on earth do you buy?) amidst the many, panicking Zamalekites piling their trolleys high with Perrier, Saumon Fumee and Belgian biscuits. I came home with five bags of fuul tins and flour (I have no idea), only to find my family and friends staring at the TV with their mouths open.
‘Wait, was that a camel?’ one of them asked. And I realised my friends were in Tahrir surrounded by camels. I’d missed the camel battle by minutes as I was shopping for fuul tins. Shit you can’t make up.
Then there was the night Mubarak stood down, and my father and mother stood around the TV screaming and crying, I grabbed my shoes to run off to Tahrir before my father drew me into a hug and said, ‘Thank you for doing what my generation never could’ and cried. That quote became a tweet that ended up in a book that is the sole claim to fame I have.
There were nights of gas masks and graffiti spray cans, of Libyan activists making long distance calls to Benghazi as it fell to the revolutionaries, of the Gaza doctor who’d smuggled a water bottle filled with Vodka back from Rafah, left it in the fridge and had forgotten to warn me, the balcony that held up to fifteen people who sang so loud, neighbours three streets down could hear us. There was food and laughter, lights suddenly being turned off as gunshots fired too close to the house, of watching the plain clothes mokhabarat shred and bury a pile of documents in the backyard across from my balcony, of sleepless nights of crying and convulsing from the aftershock of nerve gas and watching grown men die, but never ever any stillness.
Then there was that night before Morsi won and the bar nearby threw a gallabeya party, and the day the results were announced I was accosted by a terrified neighbour who was moving her entire family to the coast because ‘If Shafiq wins, the Ikhwan will come and KILL US IN OUR SLEEP!’
‘How do you know this?’ I asked as I tried to dislocate her clenched wrists from around my neck.
‘MY PLUMBER TOLD ME, HE SAID THEY ARE COMING FOR THE RICH. WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIIIIIEEEEEEE.’
When the news broke, I walked to the club, the streets deserted and a pregnant quiet hanging over the heavy trees. And then shouts of joy erupted, I watched a street sweeper hug a restaurant waiter and congratulate him, as the tantes and uncles slumped in their seats and cried quietly into their lemon mint juices from FBI.
Then there was that time I decided to kidnap my neighbours’ dog, which was chained outside in the communal hallway in a wooden crib, where he drank from a water bowl covered in faeces, and the welts and bruises in his skin showed that he’d been beaten repeatedly.
After days of sneaking clean food and milk into his bowl, I asked a friend if she knew of any animal activists who could help. I asked that I be kept anonymous. Somehow my message got posted on some underground forum of animal activists in Cairo. The following happened:
- Attempt nr.1: Sherif, who described himself as a dolphin activist – he’d stolen some dolphins from a hotel somewhere in the Red Sea (???!!!??), called me.
‘This is what we’re going to do, ok? I’m going to sneak this pill into his food, mashy? The pill stops his heart from beating for a few hours, ha? Ha. They find he’s dead and they throw his body out in the trash, ah walahi. I will go pick him up from the trash and then take him to a safe house. Tadaa.’
‘Or, OR, you DON’T give him the pill, you just cut the chain to his neck, pick him up and leave!’ I suggested.
Sherif disappeared and never contacted me again. I never found out about those dolphins.
- Attempt nr. 2 was Basma, a very kind-hearted bur rather naive soul who decided honesty was the best policy; so she knocked on the neighbour’s door, informing them she was a friend of mine, and lecturing them on how to take better care of the dog. They looked at her, and slammed the door. So Basma had not only failed but implicated me in the plot.
- The last attempt was by the even more intelligent Sarah, who told the neighbours she was my friend and a vet, and said that the dog had a contagious virus that could kill their children, and she offered to take the dog off them. They said they’d think about it, so she waited outside the building, talked to the bawab and every single resident in the building about her plans to kidnap the dog and how she was a friend of mine. Genius.
The good news was that she did take him later that night, and the vet who checked him said he was covered in tumours and diseases due to beating, malnutrition and general human shittiness. I never saw Sarah again but she said he was adopted by a decent family, and even though the neighbours suspected me, the doorman interrogated me (see conversation above) and decided that I was not involved. They tried to kidnap my cat, Shitface, but that lasted about two minutes till he stuck his claws cheerfully in their thighs and they quickly unkidnapped him. 7abeeb mama.
Then there was that time a giant rat sauntered into the house. Shitface took one look at him and said ‘Oh HELL no.’ Rat disappeared into the kitchen and I spent most of the night with my feet firmly perched on the couch, watching the shut kitchen door as it trembled from the impact of rat flinging body against it.
I put a rag rug under the door to stop him from escaping, only to find half of it chewed off (as well as part of the door) the next morning. It was then when I discovered that the measure of a man should be in how he deals with a rat. Every manly man I knew was suddenly out of town/sick/overwhelmed with work to come help, and my bawab’s idea of rescuing me was to shove a piece of cheese covered in glue (I honestly don’t know) into the kitchen before cowering behind me, and then hitting my washing machine with a big stick in the hope the rat would come out with its hands up in defeat.
This is the same bawab who stood guard every night against thieves and ‘possible ikhwans’ with a big stick, but a rat one tenth his size scared the life out of him.
This apartment pretty much sums up everything I loved and hated about Egypt. There’s much more but I won’t tell you.
*I’d translate all of this into English, but I’m too lazy.