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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Mokatam 25/10


Sitting in a malevolent maelstrom of Arabic, the words whirling, swirling and twirling. My ears perked up to pick them up, my brain laughing at this futile effort, my hands a bowl to receive money like desert water the spaces between my fingers  turgid, tied and tight, coins like blessing falling into them. Me  the whole time wondering how the hell I got into this particular situation.

I was on my way to Mokotam, actually pronounced moatumn, this kind of thing explains the problem am in. you see Arabic has English beat when it comes to the number of vowels. The linguistic dexterity here is amazing, you have to roll your tongue, say some word with just enough space for a hiss to escape, pronounce some letter while blocking the back of your mouth, hack back and cough every so often. The average English speaker is lost, completely lost while trying to pronounce any word here. Add to that the fact that noone seems to shrub here, in Kenya saying masl instead of mazl will be quickly caught as a linguistic peculiarity that is easily corrected in the space between ear canal and brain, here nothing doing even though the former is a shisha brand and the conversation was revolving around this particular drug.

Anyway I was on my way to Mokotam. It's a beautiful spot on the outskirts of Cairo, you drive up these hills that were carved away to make the very road you are driving on as well as the old town. You get to the top and before you  the whole of Cairo is arrayed at your feet. There's a story in the bible where one of the main characters went without food for so long that any other man would have been hallucinating, in this weakened state, both physically and psychologically another of the main characters appears, this particular one has not being mentioned for a while, he appears in the beginning of the book and pops up like a special guest star speckled through some of the events though his presence is always ominously hinted at, he's a bad muther shut your mouth! The one character begins to offer the other things in exchange for dominion and supplication, he offers him the whole world if he would only bow down to him and proclaim his allegiance. Considering the superpowers the characters in that book posses it is entirely possible that the devil transported Jesus to Mokatam and showed him Cairo at night while making that offer.

I was on my way to this beauty spot, I had just got off the subway station at Rameses II or el Shohada and I had to get a micro~bus[old school matatu.] I had been told the name of the stage and I just had to ask around since Egyptians are very good with giving directions. Well very helpful, sometimes asking directions in Cairo is being engaged in a giant game of paintball where you get tossed this way and that by smiling, gesturing helpers. Some of it stems from the fact that Cairo is so big there is no one person who can get around all of it comfortably necessitating the frequent exchange of directions. People ask for directions while stuck in traffic! The other part is their culture I guess, always take care of a guest. But they couldn't hear anything I was saying, I was crossing back and forth and asking the police in white where this micro~bus was, I was getting conflicting directions, being led here and back there, where-forth and back again all because I couldn't pronounce the word Mokatam.

I finally got myself on a micro bus. Some of them have a tout to collect money and give back change as everyone should but this one didn't. Everybody began passing money forward, a pound here is equivalent to about 6 dollars and the fare was 1.5 pounds, or guinea u nus. The money began coming forward, slowly till it came to me. I had heard stories of India where everyone just passes .the money forward and then it comes back down slowly giving change to everyone, I figured this is what was happening. So I took the money about 14 pounds at this time. All I had was a twenty pound note and I knew I should get the change out of this, I looked back and counted the number of people who had given me money, there were seven of them. At this point I had no idea how much the fare was and I just assumed that everyone would have had exact change, looking back this seems really stupid. I did my calculations and took these 14 pounds and passed my note forth feeling like I had cut all the work we would have to do in half, smug and pleased with myself.

But I could sense there was something wrong with the atmosphere, this happened when my money was put back in my hand. So I held on to everyone else's money offering up to anyone who would take it off my hands. Now everyone was shouting full throttle. The driver was turning in his seat, too angry to drive carefully, he was shouting at the guy next to me who was shouting back. Everyone's Arabic gained some extra volume and there I sat having no idea what was going on. I gave back the money and extricated myself from the problem, well as much as you can while sitting in the eye of the storm. Hand gestures started being thrown around and all I could do was look apologetic and confused, this actually translates quite well.

And so we drove as everyone shouted. The driver turning from the road more than should be allowed. Money kept coming into my hands and I kept trying to give it back to wherever it came from, finally everyone quieted down and I had just as much money as I had started with, the drivers arch-enemy had left and at this point exactly the guy next to me outs himself as an English speaker, thee I am sitting wondering why he waited this long when I realise I would have done the same confronted with such a fool as the one beside him.