Monday, 21 September 2009
“Eid Mubarak.” This is the phrase one sees and hears everywhere over the last three days. The end of Ramadan has arrived officially in Egypt. In this country, people no longer depend on the visual sighting of the crescent moon by a group of high religious officials; an astronomical calculation is made by an astronomer, or maybe a group of them, and when the math says that the month is over, the month is over.
The city has been very quiet the past couple of days; all the shops were closed and the streets were generally empty. I didn’t see too much in the way of public celebration, some fireworks, but nothing grandiose. Maybe I’m just in the wrong location. My neighbors went out visiting, or maybe to the beach. The kids were boisterous, no doubt glad for anything that gets them out of school for a day (if Egyptian kids are like kids anywhere…). The holiday is family time and time for people to get back on a normal eating and sleeping schedule. Tomorrow the shops and businesses open again, but government offices are closed until Wednesday. The library opens on Wednesday, too, so I’ve still got a couple of days to get things in order. The apartment is pretty much squared away and I’ve cooked my first couple of Egyptian meals. Pretty basic stuff since I didn’t buy a lot of herbs and spices or staples, for that matter.
The guide books and the Fulbright people touted the friendliness and hospitality of the Egyptian people and I had my first substantive experience of that today. I had been wanting to walk around and see if I could locate my bank branch so I can go and pick up my ATM card on Thursday. I set out to do that about ten this morning and was met by Tawfiq the doorman as I exited the elevator. He asked how I was and we exchanged pleasantries. After the formalities, I asked him if he could tell me where the building housing the bank was. All I knew was that it was on the Corniche (the seafront road) somewhere near my apartment. He didn’t understand “HSBC,” nor did he know the “Burg Delta,” the building where the bank was. I had a couple other clues, but those were equally helpless.
So, he turns to another man standing nearby and has me ask him as well. The second man spoke a bit of English, but apparently not enough to understand what I was after, Just then a third man, came out of the foyer and Tawfiq turned to him and quickly asked him to speak to me. He did. In English. His name was Sharif and after he listened to my story, he insisted on driving me to the bank in his car (which was conveniently parked right there).
We hopped in and he drove me east on the corniche for about a two miles or so (I’m glad I didn’t attempt the walk; I probably would have given up before getting that far; it was already hot!). He pointed out landmark buildings along the way so I’d know how to recognize the place on Thursday. We talked and I learned that he works for Unilever. The multi-nationals are here in Egypt, too, and that goes far toward explaining the rising standard of living, the traffic jams, the increasing number and variety of consumer goods, and so forth. It also explains the advertisements for suburban living. In any case, we turned around and he indicated he wanted to drive me back to the apartment building. I told him that that was unnecessary and that he was probably busy and had to be somewhere. Nonsense, he said. Not a problem. He insisted that I have his cell phone number and he made me promise I’d call him if I needed any kind of assistance.
I got out at the door and we parted. Tawfiq was there and wanted to know if everything was okay. I told him yes, now I knew where I had to go and how far it was. I asked him how much the train cost and he asked me if I needed to go to Cairo. No, I said; just to the new library. “Oh,” he responded. “Don’t do that. Take a cab. Five Egyptian Pounds (less than a buck).”
Okay, that sounds reasonable. “Better than the train,” he said knowingly. Well. I’ll try it on Wednesday and see.