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The apartment

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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?’

‘Hello?’

‘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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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I’m an Egyptian Woman and I Like Being Sexually Harrassed

I wake up every morning looking forward to getting sexually harassed in Cairo. Because a day gone by without being whistled at like cattle or groped like a melon at a vegetable store is a day unlived in this city. Right?

I even dress according to how often I’d like to get harassed that day. Tight white t-shirt? That’s the number one sign that I’m asking for it. Skinny jeans are obviously worn to highlight my butt so men know what to grab (some short-sighted idiots completely miss and grab my hip instead, which is just plain insulting).

And since I don’t cover my hair, then obviously I know what shit I’m getting myself into by walking on the streets of the city I call home as an equal citizen to the men that lurk on corners, outside shops, dangling from microbuses, waiting happily.

As an Egyptian woman, I completely understand that my purpose in this life is to serve the sexually frustrated imaginations of these poor men who can’t get it up. My father and mother spent years of sweat, tears and hard-earned cash on educating me into an emancipated woman so that one day I become a walking piece of meat on the street. Obviously.

Then I discovered that all the hours I put into my hair and makeup make no difference whatsoever to my sexual predators; I could walk around with my uncombed hair and a gallabeya; hell, I could wear a black tent from head to toe and still, they’d find something sexual about me. Ever heard Egyptian men talk about how erotic the Niqab is? Yeah, apparently there’s nothing you can do or wear to incite harassment.

Just the plain fact that you have boobs and they don’t means you’re up for grabs, literally.

I could spend what’s left of my pea-sized woman’s brain wondering what I did to deserve this friendly male reception, or analyzing why society has continuously objectified us little women into pigeon-holes of either innocent, doe-eyed girls or rampant whores; but I won’t.It takes too much brain power, and me being the weaker sex, I should stick to what I do best, which according to these men, is nothing.

Which is why I should never talk back, or look back, or yell or ask for help; this is my fate, I must accept it. And not even the veil can protect me from my Muslim brothers.

So I play a little game in my head. It’s like walking through a videogame scene, where every man is a potential predator, and I keep my radar finely tuned, my walk fast and dontmesswithme, my eyes scanning every corner for attackers. Over the years, I’ve acquired a Robocop face that occasionally scares the living shit out of small children and animals, and my middle finger is my videogame weapon that I choose to shoot when the moment comes.

But I only keep it for those who really deserve it; I ask myself ‘Is this the worst line I’ve heard all day? Has he managed to completely annihilate my self-esteem?’ If so, then he gets the finger. If not, I just walk on.

And I defy what my well-intentioned mother and many other kind Egyptians have taught me, and I answer back. Why should men  get all the fun?

Him: Bsssst! Bsssssst! Bssssssst!!

Me: Bsssst dee teb2a ommak.

Him: WELKOM TO EEJIPT!

Me: SANK YOU!

Him: Wat Zis? Wat Zis? Wat Zis? WAT ZIS?

Me: Zis is etnayel yala.

Him: Matgeeb Bosa?

Me: Ma3ak Dettol?

Him: Oh MAI GODD!

Me: Ommak Ar3a.

And as fun as it is to talk back, I’m sure I’m not getting the same kick out of it that they are. And I know that it could only make things worse for me, my predator could easily attack me  in broad daylight or get his friends together to follow me like a pack of rabid dogs, and of course it will be my fault because I talked back, when I should ignore it and accept that this is the price you pay for being a woman in Egypt. Right?

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For The Love of Paris

As with most major events or mishaps in my life, I like to blame my mother for my love for Paris. Thanks to her and her iron fist of TV censorship, I spent much of my childhood ogling happy musicals, many of which were about Paris.

There was Gene Kelly in American in Paris (whom I would also like to blame for ruining my taste in men- I will never find a suave tap-dancing painter who can pull off a red necktie while dangling off a lamppost) and Leslie Caron in Gigi, a film that I later on discovered was actually about a woman training her granddaughter to become a ho. A high-class ho, but a ho nonetheless. Why my mother allowed her seven- and five-year-olds to watch Gigi and yet banned Pretty Woman still baffles me to this day. The only difference between Julia and Gigi is, as far as I can see, the hot pants.

So why I never visited the city of lights in all of my twenty seven years remains a mystery to me. Life tends to get in the way of your plans, you find yourself swayed in unexpected directions. Every birthday, I’d promise myself that I’d see Paris that year (I have tens of journal entries to prove it), but then university/jobs/friends/relationships got in the way; and suddenly, twenty years had passed.

When you find yourself living a somewhat conventional life with a sickeningly responsible work ethic (I turned down free trips to Sharm El Sheikh, Beirut, Dubai and Cyprus for the sake of my work duties- did I mention free trips?), you look back on the opportunities you’ve missed out on with regret. And I hate regret. It’s up there on my list with Nabila Ebeid, snakes and fart jokes.

Maybe it’s the gay man inside of me (I love sequins. I improvise cheesy cabaret songs in the kitchen when I cook- I even have an ‘I Love Butter’ sequence- and I once re-enacted the entire Moulin Rouge duet between Ewan Macgregor and Nicole Kidman on a table- singing both roles), maybe it’s my unabated adoration of French gastronomy; but I’ve held onto my idyllic vision of Paris for years, no matter what people warned me about Parisians being rude, arrogant and smelly.

All I could think of was Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walking the Rive Gauche in Before Sunset, and all I wanted is one photograph of me sipping my café au lait by the river banks, with a necktie elegantly wrapped around my neck (again, I blame Gene for this). And then I can honestly die happy.

By die happy, I mean that every time I get plane fever and think that the plane will crash (which is, um, every time), instead of screaming out ‘I’m too young to die!’ or think of the unborn children/unpublished books/unclimbed mountains/untasted ice cream flavours that I’ve yet to meet, all I can think of is ‘But I haven’t seen Paris yet!’

And then one day, I finally did. A string of mishaps, coincidences and a sudden bout of bravery led me to book my flight to Paris without a map, itinerary or accommodation (until the very last minute) and very, very little money. I didn’t care.  The trip was a beautiful experience, especially because I knew I deserved it.

Why, you ask me?

Let’s say I was part of a business partnership for a few years that I invested all my time, energy and money into. And let’s say that I woke up one day to find that my business partner had frozen my assets, sold my share of the company and left me penniless and stranded in a foreign country with not even a ticket home.

Fast-forward one year later, and I’d worked my shapely butt off to pay off my debts, and when I sold the only remaining asset I’d managed to hang on to, I did exactly what the logical, sensible me wouldn’t have done- and I bought myself a trip to Paris. After all, I earned it.

Every dream, every musical fantasy I’d had about Paris was true.  The city lights do shimmer, the cobblestone paths do wind, and there are buskers on street corners playing Aznavour classics at sunset. The people do roll their eyes and say ‘Ohlalaaa’ as if they’re having an eyegasm, or ‘Coocoo!’ affectionately instead of Hello when they enter a friend’s home. Charming, witty and extremely Mediterranean, they roll their words off their tongue in such an effortless, musical rhythm; that even ‘Pardon me, where’s the train station?’ sounds like the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard. Drool. Pick. Jaw. Off. Pavement.

And yes, the Parisians can be rude, but they’re rude in general about everything; so it’s nothing personal. They’re as grouchy and aggressive as the average Egyptian taxi driver. All you need is a bright smile, a little skin and a flutter of ze eyelids; and they move swiftly from C’est Quoi Ca? to Mais Oui, ma Cherie!

And the food. Don’t get me started on the food. Parisian portions are small but unbelievably tasty; so good that even a random brasserie in the middle of nowhere can serve up a Croque Madam or crepe or a macaroon that’s so delectable; you may lose the will to cook every again. I know I did.

And I don’t care how cheesy or touristy the Eiffel Tower is; seeing it at night made the seven-year-old in me finally happy, and all the mishaps and misdirections over the past few years seemed worth the journey. Maybe my love for Paris all these years has been more of an idyllic dream that kept me going; knowing that one day I’d have my baguette in one hand and my bike in the other as I rode alongside the quai de la rapée at night.

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It’s Good to be an Otta

If you’re a male reading this, you’re probably going to hate me for making the following statement.

As a girl living in Egypt, I pretty much get away with murder. You know it, I know it, every policeman on the street knows it. It can’t be a coincidence that in all my years of driving, I’ve had my license revoked just once, despite driving like, as my father puts it, “a Microbus driver on crack.”

I also think it may be related to the fact that I have boobs, while policemen don’t (as far as I know), which gives me an unfair advantage in many situations.

Not that the boobs need to be shown off to get my way: it’s enough to smile, play with the hair, act shocked that the sign you’re parked under actually means No Parking, while showing  remorse and intent to never break a red light again. A fiver doesn’t hurt either.

And since most Egyptian men believe that women are terrible drivers, I’ve decided to exploit that stereotype: see, the fact that I’m a woman and my car license plate is Alexandrian means that I can pull the idiot woman driver/lost card, and policemen will just roll their eyes and let me go every single time.

Example 1:

I’m driving on the Moneeb Bridge towards Maadi at night while talking on the phone. I see the police check point coming up and a Zabet flagging me down. I stop, wind down my window, and smile sweetly while still clutching my phone to my ear.

“Ya madam,” he starts, “You do know that you can’t talk on the phone while driving? You saw me from far away, you knew I was going to stop you, couldn’t you at least have hidden your phone from me?”

Pause. Brainwave.

“I’m so sorry ya hadret el Zabet,” I squeaked while still, get this, holding onto my phone. “I’m lost and trying to get to Maadi,  so I was calling my friend for directions. I’m not from here; I’m from Alexandria, just look at my license plates, ah wallahi.

Pause.

“Where in Alexandria are you from?”

I tried not to roll my eyes (Cairenes think that Alexandria has districts like Imbaba and Heliopolis, when we’re pretty much the size of a sardine box with a total of three main streets), and I say, “From Mahatet El Raml, hadretak.

Zabet’s face changes completely.

“You’re from Mahetet El-Raml? I’m from Roushdy! What a coincidence! That practically makes us neighbors! Ahlan Wasahlan Ahlan! Ok, go ahead take first right then go straight-”

Example 2:

I once got stopped at the Maadi entrance checkpoint at 2AM.  Policeman made the mistake of letting the car in front of me pass and stopping me instead.

“Why did you stop me and not the car in the front of me?” I whined, “Is it because I’m a girl? It’s not correct of you to stop a young woman alone in her car at such a late hour, haram 3aleek, this is not kind; would you want this to happen to your sister or your mother? Would you?”

Policeman rolled eyes, let me through.

Example 3:

“I’m sorry, officer, I had no idea this was an illegal U-turn. Wait, there’s a sign saying so? I don’t know how to read signs! Is this Zamalek? It’s not? It’s Heliopolis? How do I get to Zamalek please?”

Smile.

Example 4:

Radar checkpoint on the Cairo-Alex Desert Road.

Ya madam, you were speeding.”

“Really? I was?”  Pout.

“Really.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, madam, I am the radar.”

“Oh dear, was it very bad?”

Policeman falters slightly.

“No it wasn’t that bad, it was 105. Speed limit is 100.”

“Oh dear, and I was so sure I was driving at 100.”

“Well you weren’t.”

Smile. “I’m so sorry; I won’t ever speed again. Ha’ak 3aleya.”

Policeman sighs and gives up.

“Fine, just be careful next time.”

And it’s not just policemen. I charmed my way through my driver’s license exam (even though I drove over my examining officer’s foot twice-but that’s another story), into two jobs that I was completely unqualified for (including one where I couldn’t even speak the language), and I have never had my luggage checked at the Cairo Airport Customs- well, except for one time where the bag was bursting with new clothes but I’d left a pile of dirty underwear on top, which freaked the officer out and he quickly rushed me through. Interestingly enough, my bags have never been checked since.)

Yet, while I enjoy exploiting my feminine wiles to escape the occasional parking ticket, I do it with a clear conscience because I know that I live in a country where my rights as a woman are not necessarily respected or protected.

Rising poverty and unemployment rates are leading to higher crime levels all around Egypt, and violence against women seems to be becoming more frequent and more brutal. Every day I read about women being kidnapped off public transportation, gang-raped in broad day light, thrown off balconies, beaten to death, burnt with gasoline, hanged, hacked into pieces.

In last July alone, 500 cases of sexual molestation, 8 cases of rape and 19 murders were reported.

Sexual harassment itself seems to be a rite of passage for every woman on the streets of Egypt: a recent study found that 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed or assaulted at some point in their lives.

It’s not much safer at home:  a separate study found that 61.3% of Egyptian men admit to beating their wives.

Justice rarely seems to be served in a judicial system that recognizes honor killings and gives minimal sentences to murderers and rapists:  a man and his son in Beheira were given one year in jail last September for murdering the man’s 16-year old daughter, who had allegedly disgraced her family with her bad reputation. The men got off easy because the judge agreed with their defense that the 16-year-old’s ‘bad reputation’ justified her murder.

So yeah, I may get away with a lot of things, but unfortunately all too often, men actually get away with murder here.

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