Jeff&Reda-Aswan2014
Aswan, April 2014
Fifth Wedding Anniversary

A Small Wedding in Pyramids
Our household diary of the Egyptian Revolution period
Jeffrey Charles Marck (Gafar) and Reda Mohamed Mahmoud Hassan El Masry
Pyramids, Egypt

In 2005 Gafar bought a retirement flat in Pyramids then went back to Australia in 2006 to do more Pacific Islander language prehistory work. He retired a bit young in 2008 after completing those projects and returned to Cairo April 15. By early 2009 his friends were seriously wondering who was "taking care" of him and helping to arrange introductions as he did, indeed, want to get married (to someone his own age who was also about retirement age and also wanted to tour the Arab world). "Well," said his friend Assim El Sersy. "There's our cousin Reda who, for forty years, has said, 'No,' to every man we have introduced her to..... but if you wanna try....." So they were introduced on Reda's birthday, April 15..... and sped off to get married before letting the other get away.
Wedding GoldThe Bridewealth
The Day we didn't get married (again)
A Few Days Before We Married


Prologue

Small Triumphs

One day in late 2014 the bike was with the mechanic and while my repairs were under way I walked over to the kofta restaurant to place an order. I was just about back to the mechanic’s cross street on tiny Ali Abu Zed, a market street hardly wider than the streets with just residential ground floor frontages not six meters across from each other. There was a lull in the normal bustle of people filling the street and the only thing before me was a miniature sort of person doing battle with something stuck to her left foot. I couldn’t see what she was stomping on and scuffling with even in the bright ambiance of the street where the skylight lit her up like floodlights on a stage. She looked like she was trying to get rid of a piece of flypaper stuck to her foot. But her new blue jeans were long and baggy and I couldn’t see what it was.

She was older than just two but maybe not three as she seemed to have diapers on under her jeans. She got rid of the obstruction, regained her footing and got on with the business of pressing onwards; determined, efficient, triumphant, as she trailed her mother who had just passed me going the other way. There was an object where the child had been scuffling away and as I got closer I could see that it was a sneaker of about the child’s size. White with pink trim like Reda’s sneakers. I wondered if it might be the child’s own shoe, picked it up, turned to the direction of the mother and child and called out, “Madame.” They were walking on and away but a matron coming towards me directed the child’s mother’s attention towards me.

She looked in my direction and the picture I presented was one of a largish man in the gigantic winter coat that keeps me clean and warm on the motorcycle, looking curiously at a child’s tiny new shoe in my hand. The shoe was twinkling clean in the skylight; me gazing off in her direction in the middle of the otherwise empty, sky lit real estate I was occupying; seeming, perhaps, to be standing in floodlights as had the child when I was first looking at her from the same vantage point. The matron said something to the child’s mother who then looked quizzically down to the child.

A shoe inventory wasn’t immediately possible because of the child’s long, loose pant legs falling down to and covering the toes of both feet. While the mother was bending down and pulling up the pant legs to see if the child was wearing two shoes or just one, I occupied myself by walking towards them. Just as the mother had confirmed that there was, indeed, a missing shoe, I had arrived. She turned to look in my direction, still bent at the knees, arched downward to the child’s level and, presto, I was standing right before her, the tiny shoe in my hand exactly at her eye level immediately in front of her nose.

Completely amused, she burst out laughing and snatched the shoe away from me, me seeing for the first time that she was young and beautiful and wearing elegant clothes beneath her robe, her lips bright red with a dignified shade of lipstick exposing gleaming, perfect teeth. I turned and walked back in the direction of the mechanic’s shop, enchanted by a cheerful memory of Ali Abu Zed Street for the day. A cool winter day.

Christmas Day, 2014, in the Western Church.

Letters to Family and Friends:

19 April 2009 – gold rush

I have wanted to get married for some months, since before leaving Australia last year, really, and have had introductions to some lovely women. But they were all 10 and 20 years younger than me. I wanted to marry someone who personally experienced the Gamal Abdel Nasser years and also had her own personal memories of American activities in the region and would understand my memories as an age-mate and my decision to retire to Cairo.

Assim, my good friend from a nearby neighborhood, has a cousin, Reda, who is a wee bit younger than me. We were formally introduced at Assim’s home four days ago and Reda and I are getting married ASAP – flank speed, kind of. Only certain things will cause delays – finding and fixing up a flat for the moment. She initially said she’d be happy to get married immediately, move in with me (she had seen my apartment), then look for something bigger over time. But yesterday or so she decided we should find, furbish and furnish a bigger place before the wedding. So I bought her a Nokia and, since last night, we are on stand-by to look at prospective flats as agents bring them to our attention.

Reda’s an electrical engineer with the telephone company. Maybe not an EE but both she and her sister have degrees of some kind. The sister was a school teacher but is a bit older and retired two or three years ago. They live together with the sister’s 20-year-old son from a short marriage years ago, raising the sister’s son together for the last 18 years, if I understood correctly.

Last night I bought Reda the gold which seals engagements in this part of the world. Under $2000. Like a lot of other people. The marriage contracts are registered and attract high fees if there is more gold than that involved. Once we’ve signed a lease, the wedding contract will be next. Always chirpy, Reda’s taken to holding hands for brief periods since she got her gold – when crossing the street last night after leaving the gold shop, later then at Assim’s house after she opened the gift wrapped cell phone box, and for a long moment as Assim and I were saying good-night when we dropped her home. This is all pretty formal stuff. I shouldn’t give her the phone or any other present until I gave her the gold. She wouldn’t let a hand-shake linger until she got the gold. We’re always chaperoned heavier than in the Godfather, etc., etc. We will get married the day the "house" (beyt - "house or apartment; home") is ready to move into which would seem to be within a month.

Residential construction is years ahead of occupancy here due to the Egyptian and general Muslim preference to put money into property development rather than interest bearing accounts and instruments. So there are thousands of empty flats right where we want to live… shells of buildings whose individual flats then see their interiors finished off as the market is able to absorb them. We’re looking for a flat in the middle of a triangle between Assim’s place, Reda’s present place and the little flat I bought four years ago. $150 a month will get us about 150 sq metres (~1500 sq feet). Renting out my 45 sq metre flat will bring us about half that. So somehow I have to come up with $75 to top off our rent each month. Problems, problems, problems.

The gold was a worry when I walked home from our negotiations Friday night. I’m not really cashed up at the moment. But then there came the offer of work from New Zealand… an 80 year old anthropologist’s language notes on a New Guinea area language that are quite extensive and substantial enough to be worked into a dictionary by a linguist familiar with the language family, the dictionary softwares, etc.

Friends and acquaintances from this side of town were blind-sided that I’m going to marry one of “them” and not a 40 year old from the rich side of town or something – that I’m content with them as my main amigos and compañeros, I guess. It’s been delightful and gives me a lot of contentment as I think of the future. Reda’s name means “contentment,” actually.

21 April 2009 – house hunting

I found quite a nice flat very near Assim’s house early this afternoon. Reda has agreed that we will take it if it passes her inspection. $175 for, perhaps, 130 sq m. It becomes available 1 May so we will probably be married about the 2nd or 3rd. It isn’t going to need a lot of fixing up but Reda and her sister will want to give it a good, somewhat ritual cleaning. Then they will be there off and on for some days before the the wedding to receive the furniture etc.

A wedding gift of gold is emergency money for them. “For you… 10,000 (Egyptian),” Reda’s smiling words to me when asked how much gold she was demanding. I don’t understand precisely yet, but there are no civil marriages in Egypt. Only registration of marriage contracts from church, mosque or synagogue. The registration fee is covered as part of an imam’s overall service: negotiation of the contract between the bride and groom’s families and registration of the marriage contract with the government. We will end up paying the imam LE 1,500 (~$275) for everything – his fee including the contract registration fee. Not, perhaps, all precisely correct but my understanding of it as I sit and write this evening.

23 April 2009 – the chess game continues

We were to have had a viewing of the $175 place on Assim’s street which was set up for yesterday afternoon but when we got there – Reda, her sister Zuba, the nephew Mahmoud, Assim, myself and others – they couldn’t produce the key for the flat as the current occupant didn’t arrive back from out of town by the time he said he would. Which cheesed us off a bit because it was a well orchestrated project to get all those people there at the appointed time.

Reda found the place we then saw last night. It’s a bit beyond the main part of Pyramids suburb and we decided to take it. The area has its own name which I haven’t learned yet. It’s all new (20 or 30 years or less?), all built to a plan surrounded by wide avenues compared to the narrow roads of Assim’s, Reda’s and my own current neighborhoods in the Faisal and Pyramids sub-suburbs of the more enormous region also called “Pyramids”. Its units were sold exclusively(?) to members of the armed forces and they now are said to rent them out or to have sold them or to be saving them for their children’s use upon marriage just as often as they are inhabited by the owners. It’s closer to the pyramids than my present home and the pyramids loom large on the near horizon from our new neighborhood. THE pyramids and our apartment complex are on the Giza Plateau which rises some hundred or hundreds of metres above the Nile floodplain which extends right to the edge of where the Sphinx and pyramids are built up on the higher elevations of the plateau. So we are up on a hill where Assim’s house, Reda’s house and my own house are on the floodplain (which saw no home construction except, as I presently understand it, seasonal farm houses which were annually flooded along with the farms’ fields before the building of the Aswan Dam).

The place Reda found is only 6 or 800 metres from the telephone company facility where she works:Central Remaya” – “central” in Egyptian seems always and only to refer to the central district telephone exchange offices. To me it didn’t much matter where we lived (in this part of town) because I will be motorcycling into work at the hotel every morning before rush hour. So Reda’s over the moon and so am I, really. The places are both bigger and cheaper out there. Our rent is to be LE550, precisely $100 a month, and the little place I own will be rented to the neighbour’s son for LE275 so somehow I have to come up with $50 a month to keep a roof over our heads.

So we’ve got 165 sq m with three bedrooms and three balconies for $100 a month instead of 120 sq m with 2 bedrooms and no balconies for $150 had we stayed within the Pyramids floodplain neighborhoods where we presently live.

This will require more furnishings than I have which will come over time. The only thing Reda said she wanted beyond what furniture I have was a new bedroom set. Assim took me out last night to a very flash used furniture place where all the wardrobes started at $1,000 and was talking as if it would be me who would be buying all this stuff. I began seeing spots before my eyes and had to go home.

In the end it doesn’t matter much. Reda finally wants to get married. Her family is relieved and joyous and we’re all a bit rich in this part of town anyway. Me because I speak English and can always get some kind of job. Assim with his hotel. And Reda with her job and properties. The properties seem to be a mix of vacant lands she and her sister bought over the last 30 years or something – and the building they put up and live in (a mosque on the ground floor and then five apartments in five stories above it where they rent out the four floors they don’t live in).

Reda and her sister are first generation Cairo women (from El Menya 250 km south of here on the Nile in “Upper Egypt” ["up" the Nile]) whose father saw to their higher education at a time when many men didn’t. He was some kind of businessman from Alexandria. And his daughters did well in the city. They bought several vacant properties and built their own apartment building, at any rate.

I don’t know if they grew up in the farming villages outside El Menya or in El Menya proper or in mixed farm / larger village areas or what. But they’re still farm girls. They have, for instance, lovely furniture in their large flat but have never had a refrigerator. Perhaps they figure a thoughtful householder can plan her food purchases and meal preparation without need of one. But Reda seems glad I’ll be bringing one along. She had a happy smile on her face as she glanced at it in her formal visit to my house some days ago (to take inventory of what she wants me to bring and what she wants me to leave behind). As it turns out, nothing will be left behind. With the third bedroom in the place we are renting, we will bring my rickety bed and other bedroom stuff to make a guest bedroom and the second bedroom will be an office / sewing room.

Off to play chess with Assim, who continues to pave the way for the next day as he organises information for these evening rendezvous where news of what I will be doing the next day unfolds.

24 April 2009 – snicker

Well, we’ve got our $100 dollar a month flat. We paid the first month’s rent, a deposit, a month’s rent “commission” to the doorman who informed Reda of the empty flat when she asked some days ago if he knew of anything… and $80 to local dignitaries who came to meet us, including the policeman who is routinely called in to begin the mandatory background checks of new residents when units are rented. (I would learn over time that such gatherings essentially eliminate any of the parties to the agreement making false claims about the agreement over  time).

But we can’t have the key to the place until we’re married.

The chaperones took a big step backwards – after the lease was signed by Reda and the money mentioned in it handed over by me to the landlord – and left us to go off by ourselves to look at furniture.

The imams don’t work on marriage contracts on Fridays so all we are doing tomorrow is going out in the evening to look at furniture again. What we saw tonight after the lease business was the same as what had me so dizzy last night. But tonight I found out the $1000 wardrobe was actually a $1000 complete bedroom set. So I think I’m going to squeak through somehow.

Target of Tuesday for the wedding is probably still possible. Marriage contract on Saturday, apparently.


Reflections 30 May 2016

I had wanted to marry someone who would remember President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the 1967 war and I did very well indeed.

Abdel Nasser came to their school when Reda was a little girl and shook their hands. He told them he was glad their parents were sending them to school, especially the girls. And he told them that if they stayed in school and then got higher education credentials, there would be a job waiting for them with the government.

Reda did those things and all that he had said came true for her. Of course decades of government job guarantees for people with higher education certificates led to a bloated bureacracy and the inability of the government to pay a living wage to all who entered public service. But Reda had earned an electrical technician certificate and was hired by Egyptian Telecom right out of her AE program.

Government-owned Egyptian Telecom has now been operating for over 160 years, and has its own income stream and positive cash flow. So her wages increased rather than shrank.

Like a lot of 35 old Egyptian women today, she got a good education, she got a good job, and hadn't yet married.

The contemporary malingerers were the subject of lively humor in the press before the revolution. After all, Muslim men are under serious pressure to marry by the time they are 35. But with no Koranic admonitions that they must, such women are simply free to go on and on not doing so; often to their parents' astonishment and constirnation. But all laughter ended during the revolution and even to some extent up to now.

A woman with options whose misgivings about marriage 35 years ago led to availing themselves of those options was rare, or is today rarely mentioned. Males socialize entirely with other men and no one my age would ever mention a never-married sister if they had one.

Reda had options because of her income; and  took them year after year. A bit of a pathfinder.

She and her sister Zuba built a small neighborhood mosque about 25 years ago with an apartment for themselves on top of it. They added four more apartments, each on top of the other floor before I met them and another one and a half since. Like the foundation, the mosque and the floors that came after, Reda watched the day labor while every batch of concrete was mixed and every brick was laid... her being technocrat (Zuba was a private school teacher).

Ducks, chickens, geese, pidgeons and other fowl grace the unrooved part of the seventh floor. I built a lot of the cages for them.

So it isn't the goat on the roof of the Naguib Mahfouz Cairo trilogy but we see lots of them as we look down and around on the rooves of the buildings that are still lower than theirs. There is almost no wet garbage that goes down to the street. It all goes to the roof.

In any event, I drive Reda over there every day at about 4PM as the traffic soon becomes worse and then I dash home before it becomes worse yet. There she stays into the evening feeding the critters and cleaning their pens and cages. I pick her up at about 10:30 PM after working through the evening on copy editing projects and going to Ibrahim The Painter's shop for a cup of tea at about 9. We have a meal when we get home then I do more editing and she watches TV until about 4AM when we retire. We get up for the noon prayer and Reda spends the afternoon cooking and doing other housework while I do my afternoon copy editing or video editing.

As invariable as the seasons. Old retired people at last. Or if Reda has spent the night at Zuba's I go to Ibrahim's shop at about noon as that is when the children are let out of school (they start at 6AM before the morning rush hour) and we video the street life as the children and young families start to pass by for the afternoon.

25 April 2009 – something she liked

We finished off our furniture adventure all at once today. Reda finally found something she liked. The installment plan.

So we got truckloads of nice, moderately priced furniture. I can’t guess where she’s going to put it all but our place is 165 sq. m. so who knows. At the last moment we got a second “solon” set (couch, love seat and two chairs) which was all overstuffed rather than the more formal set that was first on Reda’s list. It looked more comfortable than the more expensive set and she seems to want it to make one of the bedrooms into a ladies’ sitting room or something. I could afford to agree to it as it would just add $100 a month to our six months of payments.

I’m signed up for the joint Aussie/Kiwi ANZAC Day ceremonies at the Commonwealth War Cemetery. I have to be there for sunrise, leaving about six hours from now.

We go to the Ministry of Justice on Monday, as all foreigners must, to clear the administrative requirements for getting married. We were shooting for Tuesday or Wednesday but got the flat and furniture already so now we do the Muslim marriage contact and its registration and then there will be the wedding party Monday evening or Tuesday or something, a big noisy event in Reda’s neighborhood.

27 April 2009 – magnificence

Yesterday ended magnificently after a troubled start.

It began with Reda taking the day off to receive the new furniture and the doorman then refusing to open up the place for us (because we’re not married). So we tried to get married, instead, and dressed up and went downtown. Registering a marriage involving a foreigner requires doing so at the Ministry of Justice which told us we had to first start at the Australian consulate and get a standard sort of certificate saying the embassy has no objection. So we went down (river) to the embassy and had a cuppa at the Hilton next door while we waited for 1:30 pm and the consul to be available.

The consular officer just about soiled her britches when I had to ask Reda the rest of her name. Reda Mohamed Mahmoud Hassan El Masry.

Then we found out I will have to produce a certified copy of my Australian divorce (which I don’t have) and we went off to Assim’s hotel to lick our wounds. Like my friends around my neighborhood, the hotel staff is kind of nonplussed and delighted that I would be marrying someone my own age so we just sat there and enjoyed the afternoon chatting with the staff from our throne in the reception area (see the picture at the top of this web page of the two of us below the picture of Reda's gold). Our matching colors were fortuitous. We hadn’t discussed the matter before we made our individual selections of the day.
 
Then came word that the watchman had made a mistake and that the new flat was, indeed, available to us to move furniture into. But it was prayer time so we lost another half-hour while hands, faces and feet were washed and prayers were prayed, then heading off for Pyramids in the peak of the rush hour and it took an hour or more to get home.

Assim’s brother, Mohamed loaded a pretty big truck at the furniture shop while my neighbors helped me a bit and then sent me off to the new flat to help receive the truck while they moved my furniture down to the street and packed my personal possessions, making ready for Mohamed and the truck’s second load from Tersa Street (the furniture retailer is on Tersa and my old flat is just off Tersa a kilometer or two closer to the Pyramids). 

I arrived to the new flat just in time to see the most magnificent spectacle. At the top of the building’s rather grand entrance steps was Reda involved in a full blown African palaver with ten or fifteen men below, everyone shouting at full volume when they spoke. The truck from the furniture store had been unloaded onto the parking lot and they were negotiating what she would pay them to haul everything up to the 5th floor – Reda pumping her fist in the air, saying she would not give a piaster more than LE10 ($2) per man while they were refusing to budge, shouting all at once when they spoke, demanding LE15. This went on for maybe half an hour until the men caved in and then hauled it all up to our flat in about 20 minutes, there were so many of them – me standing the rear guard to make sure no one nicked anything out the parking lot entrance way. I’ve not seen such emotion in a crowd since 1960s anti-war demonstrations in America. Reda could have been a Viking woman with a shield and sword threatening a town under siege – various imagines swam through my mind. And she’s very short. 5 foot, maybe. Very grand that evening in any event.

Then the truck left and soon came back from my old place, Reda and I sorting the furniture into things we would keep here at the new place and things that would stay on the truck to go into storage at her old place. Some things had been left at my old place as gifts to the neighbor and his daughters-in-law, who ordered me off to the new place and then packed all my stuff themselves, and to his sons who hauled all of it down to the street along with the furniture, and stood guard over it on the street for a few hours waiting for the truck and then loading the truck.

One of my last memories of living in my little flat involves the neighbor’s wife and twenty-something daughter. They appeared at my flat’s entrance door with some of my laundry, carried it to my bedroom and were leaving to go, the daughter gone a moment ahead of her mother. My neighbor’s wife then paused at the bedpost closest to the door, clutched its top between her thumb and index finger and moved it as violently as she could with that light grip. The bed gave out a creek and a groan and we burst out laughing. Yes, it was well that we had just bought a new bed.

We all dragged home for the night at about 2 am, me staying with the old neighbors – “my” family – the people who fed me, washed my clothes, cleaned my house, repaired my fixtures, carried me off to the doctor once when I was too weak to get there myself and had four granddaughters under three to bounce on my knee for the last year. Their middle son – Ahmed the Magnificent – had free rent the year or 15 months after he got married and before I got back from Australia. The empty professor’s house always goes to the top student… And anyway, I figured if I started treating those young men like nephews, the father would start treating me like a brother… which he did immediately from when I returned to Egypt. I had introduced his son Ahmed to Assim who immediately hired him to work at his Sara Inn a few days before I returned to Australia in 2006. Ahmed already had an accounting degree and would learn the general  business  of running a small hotel in the following year.

Mohamed Adel (Assim’s brother), Mohamed Assim (Assim’s son) and one of my “nephews” came from the old house to the new house this morning and we started putting beds, buffets and wardrobes together. The men who hauled the stuff up made no effort to keep things together that looked alike – all Reda could do was make sure they were keeping paths clear through the place to the various rooms – so all the wardrobes’, buffets’, beds’ etc. pieces were scattered around the house like pieces of a lot of jig-saw puzzles. We began by grouping things by color and age – all the old stuff from my bedroom at the other place taken to the new guest room and reassembled.

Reda showed up a few minutes after five when she got off work and was able to tell us where the other things went and what color they were and what panes of glass and mirrors, slabs of alabaster, etc. went with what.

I had misunderstood the second lounge/“solon” room set Reda got at the furniture shop. She didn’t want to put the second set in one of the bedrooms instead of bedroom stuff (I had thought she wanted to make a woman’s reception room or something). She wanted the dining table in that bedroom and wanted both settee sets in the lounge room which now seats 14 – two couches, two love seats and four chairs. My office is now one wall of the guest room where my old bedroom furniture went. The neighbor’s wife and daughters-in-law had washed my Egyptian rugs and they were just gleaming, two of them (identical) precisely cover the lounge room floor from the front legs of the chairs etc. and precisely match and blend the various colors of the two settee (“solon”) sets.

Reda’s nephew, Mahmoud, then showed up and switched the lock on the entrance door so we can now let ourselves come and go at will. We needn’t seek the doorman’s permission anymore. Passive resistance.

Reda and I later went down and informed the building manager that our wedding has been delayed and that I would now be staying here while Reda would be moving in after the wedding. He shrugged even though the unit is exclusively in Reda’s name (a higher level of police check would have been required of the flat’s owner had a foreigner’s name also been on the lease).

So Reda and her chaperones will be regulars at about 4:10 pm after she gets off work and I will be getting home from work at the hotel about 20 minutes later on days when I have gone downtown.

I’ve told everybody I’m out of money and they (Reda, her sister, Assim, his brother) now have to deal with paying for everything. Reda and her nephew/chaperone left tonight after we talked for about seven hours, making budgets, etc., and only had to telephone someone for translation help about ten times. It’s all getting easier.

28 April 2009 – ring the bells?

Reda now wants to go the imam on Thursday for our interview for the marriage contract and then go back to him and get married the following Thursday. Civil registration will come in about a month after my divorce decree copy arrives from Australia.

Reda and I were alone in the flat for about three minutes when Mahmoud headed downstairs as he knew that Mohamed Adel was on his way up. I mock cornered Reda in the hallway and made as if to kiss her lips. She burst into a great smile but said there would be none of that before the wedding party.

We filled nine of our 14 lounge room seats tonight. Very gay with dinner at the dining room table in the back room where the entrance to its balcony keeps fresh air sailing through the room. Assim and his brother Mohamed Adel and son Mohamed Assim officially thanked me on behalf of their family for renting and furnishing such a nice place for Reda. Reda, her sister Zuba and Mahmoud the nephew were there. An imam I know. Another man I don’t know well, a driver from the hotel, perhaps, and myself.

Assim announced tonight that he is going to get us drapes. Which is a pretty big deal in terms of home furnishing in Egypt. And a substantial expense to Assim. People just love them and sometimes seem to put them on walls with no windows just to have more of them. Or to cover bare walls. There is often a portrait of the male and female heads of households’ fathers or the male head of household himself. But otherwise, lounge rooms and dining rooms often have completely bare walls except for the drapes.

Always best to make a girl laugh. I did pretty well tonight. They changed my mixing of the settee pieces so the one set now runs along two contiguous walls and faces the other on the opposite contiguous walls. Reda and I were sitting in adjacent pieces of the expensive stuff and had just finished a grueling look at our budget/cash flow. We did it ourselves. Her with her bits of English, me with my bits of Arabic. Numbers, days of the week, names of the months. Whew. We were catching our breath and had both gone briefly numb in the brain so I said three words in really perfect Arabic – “After six months...” and then swept my arm towards the less expensive solon set. She just exploded. Her own mind had finished the sentence – “... this will all be ours.” She laughed and she laughed and she laughed.

Then we made a list of things my old neighbor’s eldest son and I will do tomorrow. And now, too, Reda’s nephew Mahmoud, it would seem. She gave me LE100 earlier in the evening and tomorrow I will spend LE80 on hinges, door latches and shower heads (and LE20 on cigarettes for me and the young men). She and Zuba finished off stuffing the fridge with cheeses, milk, bread and other handy stuff and left for the night, faked kissing of the cheeks (we miss by about two inches), a light shake of the hand and “Bon nuit”.

I’m starting to live like some Arab business and laboring men like to live right now: sleeping until about noon and then working around the house about noon to 8 pm with the other men and then socializing until about two in the morning, going to bed at four. That will change after Reda and I begin cohabiting. I prefer sleeping 10 pm to 6 am and she has to because of her job. But Egyptian men, if they can, seem to sleep from 4 am to noon. One has “arrived” as an adult male if one can do so, or something.

09 May 2009 – we didn’t get married (again)

We were supposed to pick up Reda’s ID photos today and take them to the imam but there were tradesmen at Reda and Zuba’s house all through the afternoon and evening so the photos didn’t get picked up until about 8 pm – too late to go to the imam. There was the distraction of the tradesmen but there were relatives to direct them and keep the house secure so I’m wondering if Reda’s getting stage fright and put off the photos, relieved to have an excuse.

So I went and got them. They were terrific – her passport photos and a quick portrait they did of the two of us. They used a really bright flash which totally bleached out all my wrinkles’ shadows. And then there was heavy touch-up work. They even air brushed my shoes which were very, very dusty from the long walk to the photographers. It’s too big to scan the whole thing.

When I got back from the photo shop Reda was very nervous – at the loss of the delaying tactic, perhaps. I hadn’t said anything – not much, anyway. I think it was more from her family’s side that she felt boxed in and then announced, “Thursday, the imam and the wedding party. Finished. It will be Thursday. Finished.” “Finished” also translates as “It’s complete. It’s agreed. It’s decided. We don’t need to talk about it anymore.” The imam and the party – that means she will be moving in Thursday night. Unless she weasels out of it again. The party details are vague. Their house’s street is a traditional possibility but they were also on the phone pricing clubs’ and hotel function rooms (and also telephoning their relatives in Upper Egypt to say it’s on for Thursday… so perhaps this is it).

11 May 2009 – cheerful, kind and loving

We will, Inshallah, do our marriage contract with an imam Thursday which means we will get our flat lease papers released and Reda can start moving in. The wedding party is being delayed as it really takes a week or two to negotiate a venue, put out the invitations, etc.

“My” family has just been wonderful – the family which owns and occupies most of the flats in the building where my own little flat is. They dismantled and hauled all my furniture down to the street then loaded the truck when I shifted to the new place, the women packed up the kitchen, bedroom and office. It all happened in the blink of an eye. Boy Wonder (Ahmed), their middle son who got free use of my flat as a wedding present while I was back in Australia, continues to advance at the InterContinental reservations office after a useful apprentice year at Assim’s hotel 2006-2007. Ahmed’s elder brother, Semah, who is cheerful, kind and loving but entirely devoid of ambition, now occupies my little flat.

Semah’s work at our new house has also been useful in the resulting contact with Reda and her family – Assim’s older brother Mohamed and Reda’s nephew Mahmoud yesterday, for example (Semah was working on electrical fixtures and Mohamed and Mahmoud were installing curtain rods). So Reda’s family is understanding a little more that Semah and Ahmed are like nephews to me.

There is a system now where I tell Assim what Reda is saying she wants, Assim tells me what is a better idea, Assim tells Mohamed and then Mohamed gently mentions useful things to Reda. Yesterday, for instance, Mohamed mentioned to Reda that Thursday is too soon for the wedding party she had envisaged as a budget had to be developed and then invitations have to be circulated at least a week in advance. Now Assim will engage her in a little talk about the benefits of appliances compared to the some of the more expensive wedding party options. Everybody’s loving it. I’m the harried groom and glad for the intellectual escape into Kove dictionary work that I’m doing for the retired New Zealand anthropologist, hamdullah.

“After the marriage, it’s the wife who causes all the trouble. Before the marriage it’s the man.” Several people have said that philosophically in exactly the same tones in recent weeks. It means that I live with heaps of anxiety for the moment. And everyone’s glad to watch me suffer. It’s traditional.

13 May 2009 – turning the page

Reda and I will be married by the imam Thursday but the wedding party is now going to be on Saturday night. So, I guess it’s Saturday that will finally see Reda and myself chasing each other around the bedroom in the wee hours. “Eng” Reda. Electrical Engineer, Reda. Overeducated at an early time. Finally found her bloke.

I continue to be a bit brain dead and turn to the Kove dictionary work for a few hours every day as an escape.

Families have different ways of doing things, which, of course, each thinks is best. On the wedding party issue, there turns out to be a cultural debate, in Pyramids, anyway, as to the virtue of street weddings compared to venues involving clubs, hotels and other such options. A street wedding, you see, is the public announcement that society requires, etc. So everybody had me focused on this cultural debate for some days, my mind filled with lofty and confusing thoughts, when what actually turns out to matter are family histories – and Assim and Reda’s families have always had their wedding parties at clubs. So now events have conspired such that ours will be, too. This stuff is wearing me out.

The El Gabrys are a fabled family in Pyramids. 20,000 of them in our suburb alone. I think they owned much of the present Pyramids (suburb) area outright before Abdel Nasser’s reforms. They were the prototypical Pyramids tour guides when you had to ride out from Cairo on a camel. They migrated out of Arabia into Sinai and then to Pyramids generations ago, moving east to west rather than west to east like Moses. I have regular occasion to share a cuppa with one of their young professionals who’s enraptured by the Reda saga. “You play the part well,” he said at one point, nonplussed. “It’s like a Naguib Mahfouz novel. Mabruuk (‘congratulations’).” I was quite chuffed to hear that from an El Gabry. 

15 May 2009 – married yesterday

I got married last night to “Eng Reda” – Reda Mohamed Mahmoud Hassan El Masry. The first day of three that will see us actually move in together.

Reda did a two year electrical engineering technology certificate from 1969, all that was available to most women at the time, and rose to “Eng” (“engineer”), a title like “Dr”, “Prof” and few others so perhaps she did additional courses later. Anyway, that’s what her compañeros at the phone company, her employer of 38 years or so sometimes call her as does her family.

Reda wanted an announcement/invitation in English and wanted “Dr Gafar and Eng Reda” at the top. So it was. With a map to the club for the main wedding party tomorrow night meant to amuse my east-side friends.

The club location is to the far right on the invitation, streets from the west given in some detail. So the venue is central Pyramids and the map drawn mainly for people coming from “deeper” into this fearful district. Fearful now-a-days mainly in the sense of trying to get into or out of the area on Pyramids Street – the clogged main artery through our community that runs from the Nile straight out to the pyramids.

There are some millions and millions of people in this district. We really never see any police in our particular neighborhoods within. There is rarely any need for them. The murder rate in this part of town must be about zero. Overall, one has to look to such places as Tokyo and Stockholm to find murder rates lower than greater Cairo.[1] 

Fathers are raising their sons and taking them to church or mosque and teaching them right from wrong. If one hears, “Stop thief!” you can be sure that it all plays out in very exactly the same fashion as in Oliver Twist. The witnesses rally a crowd that starts chasing him and further crowds close in on him from the sides and to his front and the crowds usually get their man, hauling him off as one to the nearest police station. I’ve only seen this once in two years and soon stopped telling the story… the Egyptians are embarrassed a bit to know that I’ve seen such a thing but more incredulous that I mention it, as if: “What else would you expect?”

I drove around the last couple days giving out invitations. My favorite qahua (traditional cafe) is owned by an Upper Egypt man. His younger brother runs the day shift and has been my good friend since I first moved to the neighborhood four years ago. They have been spellbound that I am marrying a woman from Upper Egypt. Perhaps they had imagined: young, bare-foot and soon-to-be pregnant because when they saw “Eng” Reda they just exploded. There aren’t many “Eng” women of that age, I suppose. Not surprising that one of them is Assim’s cousin. Her female cousins on that side of the family… Assim’s sisters… are doctors and such, medical training and qualifications being available, as a practical matter, to women before a lot of other things.

Assim negotiated the marriage contract through recent days and helped me present our desires to the imam who came to Reda’s mosque for us yesterday evening. “Reda’s mosque” – she owns it. It’s the ground floor of their now six storied apartment building where she, her sister and nephew live on the fifth floor and from which they collect tiny rents on the four floors/flats below. A seventh story addition continues their 20 year project or whatever it has been, apparently seeing work on it as funds become available from the rent on the others.

I guess we started the contract work at about 5 or 6 pm and it went on through the sunset prayer and then the final prayer of the day, the men of the neighborhood staying on in the mosque as they saw what was going on (because when all is complete the bride’s father and the groom then read aloud the portions of the contract which apply to them over the mosque’s PA system which is as loud on the street as for calls to prayer). So after we had read it over the PA system, we signed (Reda’s eldest male relative available, Mohamed Adel, standing in for her deceased father) and thumb-printed the contract copies. Then the copies were sent out to Reda in the street where there were special lights and chairs for the occasion, the women of the neighborhood gathering as they heard the contract being read over the mosque’s PA. The contract copies then came back inside with Reda’s signature and thumb-print and that was it. We’re married.

Then I got to shake hands with all the men in the mosque and music started blasting from the DJ’s’ PA system in the street (from the wedding services company that brought and set up the chairs and lights outside). Then the women of the neighborhood and Reda’s female relatives danced and sang and laughed for about two hours, the only men there being Reda’s immediate male relatives (Mohamed Adel, Assim, Reda’s nephew Mahmoud, and Assim’s son Mohamed Assim), me and my carpenter who is a good friend of Assim’s. I had misunderstood these small street functions and thought they were humble street weddings. But as I reflected on it last night, there is a different cast of characters at these small contract functions, there is not always a stage for the bride and groom or a belly dancer, there is a PA system and never live music. In our neighborhoods, there are fewer men attending and the function is over relatively quickly. Reda, the devout mosque owner, by the way, insisted on a belly dancer for tomorrow night and had a particular one in mind.

We will be about 250 tomorrow night or perhaps it is the night after. I now repair to my old flat where “my” family has been feeding me as I stop by and we make plans. It’s a short hop from my old neighborhood to the wedding party venue so one hired car will ferry us all, four at a time, from about 7 pm, tomorrow night. Today, after touching base with the Selims (“my” family’s surname) I’ll be at Reda’s to spend the rest of the day with her Upper Egypt relatives here for the occasion and other such friends and relatives as stop by.

 16 May 2009 – our house

Our “house,” into which Reda will move after the wedding party, is pretty well fixed up. So I’m off to meet my fate.

This has been an awful lot of fun.

Mahmoud the magnificent, the nephew Reda helped raise, will be here with a car in a few minutes to get me and then we pick up Reda at the beauty parlor (where the brides traditionally go in their full wedding gowns, have things done to them then get picked up by their beaus and are driven together to the wedding party).

21 May 2009 – safe delivery

Reda was just rapt when a box from my sister arrived with the bosta to Assim’s hotel a couple days ago just as the wedding festivities were dying down. Assim took it home to Faisal and I picked it up from there last night. Reda was able to read out loud the words on the cover of a CD in the package, expressing her frustration that she didn’t know what most of them meant. She was an hour or more with all the stuff on the dining room table, looking at it again and again. Curtain lining fabric. Various things were in there.

People left us to ourselves for a couple days after the wedding party but then started stopping by in small groups in what now seems a period of formal visits. They’re all following the same script – dressed to the nines and hauling in piles of boxes from the best pastry and smorgasbord shops. We haven’t cooked since we got married. Her relatives had left baked chickens, pigeons and quail with the doorman for us after I had left to pick her up for the wedding party Saturday.

I was out of the house for a couple hours Monday. Reda hasn’t, I think, left the flat at all.

I suddenly had a honeymoon to pay for the morning after the wedding party. I asked Reda when she would be going back to work, thinking it would be a day or two so she could save her vacation days for things further down the line. She looked at me rather blankly – “June 1st,” she said, “10 days marriage leave.” She just assumed I would know. So I got in touch with Australia about finishing my May dictionary work for the NZ anthropologist by the 25th and getting paid the 26th. They said, “No worries,” so there was then a budget to go somewhere for five days before Reda returns to work. We will be going to Dahab, a resort town on the Gulf of Aqaba. These places are only about 6 hours and $20 away on nice air-conditioned passenger vans and buses.

31 May 2009 – home again, home again 

We got home about 24 hours ago, slept a reasonable good night’s sleep and then both went off to work this morning. The Dahab, Gulf of Aqaba honeymoon was very relaxing. We had the perfect budget for the honeymoon and there wasn’t a single serious thing to do there. The van that brought us back stopped around Suez for an hour to let the rush hour cool down a bit in Cairo before driving us into town and Assim’s hotel. The traffic was indeed light all the way to the hotel but I had a wave of vertigo as we worked our way through the single traffic backup we encountered. I clutched up at the thought of all my new responsibilities but recovered before we got to Assim’s hotel.

Looking back on it, we are a couple of 60-ish professionals and her family wasn’t going to cough up much for the wedding beyond what we could do for ourselves. But neither of us had been saving for a wedding. That was too theoretical before actually finding a mate. So things got done for what we could afford at the time.

Two copies of my Australian divorce decree arrived in separate mailings while we were gone. So now we can go to the Australian consulate and provide them with the central document they want for their “Certification of No Objection” to the Egyptian Justice Ministry which registers all marriage contracts involving a foreigner.

We wandered off to Dahab with our marriage contracts from the imam. But we didn’t have them stamped by the Justice Ministry and couldn’t until the divorce decree came from Australia, etc. Without the stamp, the hotel reception desk in Dahab had to call in the police and disclose they were allowing, with police permission, a room to this couple with an unstamped marriage contract. The policeman didn’t know quite what to make of it and called in someone else. I had brought along my house purchase contract cum title, Egyptian driver’s license, previous Australian passport with Egyptian stamps from three and four years ago and all other bona fidé. I guess my birth certificate was still in Cairo but telling an Egyptian that one is also American is not always the first thing I want to do. Anyway, it didn’t take really, really long before the second man came, Assim (who they all know, including the second policeman) called, the policeman endorsed the hotel’s acceptance of our unstamped marriage contract and that was that.

This is what Egyptians do, I’m told. If travelling with one’s spouse, they travel with their (stamped) marriage contracts because the hotels are required by law to demand them and scrutinize them, a law that doesn’t apply if both members of a couple checking in are foreigners. It is said to always be the contract itself that is required. Egyptian women don’t take their husband’s surname so it isn’t obvious from driver’s licenses and other identity documents that a couple is (probably) married.

Home again, home again, now… Reda returns to a work routine defined by decades of invariance – 8 am to 4 pm. I took off for the hotel at 7 am and worked until about 2 pm and have to go back tonight to work with the night manager on the reservations documentation system. Then after a few days or weeks of orientation to the system, I will do the daily reservations work here at home in the morning over the Internet, then do dictionary and what other contract work I might find through midday and reservations again in the evening. It will be off season now through the summer. A good time to ease into the reservations work before they start picking up for September and beyond.

Reda glowed throughout the honeymoon and has been very cheerful today. She just left for her sister’s place and I am now leaving for my old neighborhood where I will spend a couple hours before going downtown to the hotel to work into the wee hours on learning the reservations procedures.

June 2009 – passing inspection

I saw a friend from Tersa Street in the row ahead of me after noon prayers were over in our big mosque at the top of the hill here one Friday in June. Here in “Masaakin Dobat, Remaya”… I’ve finally learned the name of where it is that we live. My friend, more of an acquaintance, is a PhD mechanical engineer and bearded “Sunna” (Salafi). The last time I had seen him was weeks or months ago when I drove or perhaps walked past him near his relative’s place which is right on Tersa a couple blocks from the cross-street that leads to the flat that I own. That day I last saw him I was hurrying off to meet up with some people, Reda’s family, perhaps, and only had time to tell him I was looking for a wife. “Who?” he said, spinning his right hand excitedly from the axis of his wrist. Another acquaintance stood looking over Dr Eng Wael’s shoulder where Wael had turned away from him to greet me. “Looking”, I said, holding a flat hand above my eyebrows as if looking for something from a distance. The two looked at each other, eyes wide as they saw that I was serious and I smiled and nodded “Yes”, and hurried off to my destination.  

He was in the Dobat Remaya mosque that June Friday, having brought his wife to visit her mother and sisters. Upon my noticing and greeting him in the mosque he was a man with a mission… to find out where I lived and who I married. He was bustling us along to his car, he explained, so we could drive to my place. I wasn’t making any progress explaining to him that we were almost there as we neared his mother-in-law’s parking lot. “There”, he said, pointing to where his car was. “There”, I said, pointing to the fifth floor of my building next door.

He followed me up the stairs and stood two steps short of the top, hand on the handrail, a common Egyptian courtesy when arriving unexpected at a residence. I unlocked our entrance door and called inside, “Eng Reda! Eng Wael heyna (Eng Wael is here)!” Wael was frozen at the top stairs and I called out to him, “Faddal (please [come along])!” and disappeared into the house. He entered nervously as I barked a few of Wael’s details to Reda way back in our bedroom. I got him seated and Reda appeared after going for her head scarf. They shook hands and she disappeared into the kitchen. “Tea, please?” I called to her in the kitchen and immediately regretted having done so. It’s a bit rude and their actual word for “please” is never heard. So I called to her right away after, “Tea, perhaps?” and she called back cheerfully, “Yes, perhaps.”

Wael seemed stunned and hardly spoke the whole time except when he and Reda were speaking Arabic rapidly and earnestly for some minutes. He was in a bit of a hurry to leave after a cup of tea as I imagine he had family obligations. But he really did seem stunned to find me in such a nice bright place with such nice new furniture and such a nice Upper Egypt wife. He, with his beard and constant galabea,[1] thinks I’m a theocratic recalcitrant and I’ve long done what I could to encourage him to believe it was true. A sort of a hobby of mine.

December 2009 – my “western holidays” note for 2009

A long note, as it turns out. They’ve just called the sunrise prayer. Copyediting work is starting to come in. There are holiday reservations at the hotel to deal with. And we’re moving house before the end of the month, I’ve just been told.

We got in for the night at straight up midnight.

I was puttering around our old neighborhoods through the evening while Reda and her sister commiserated on the 20-year-old nephew’s persistent demand and his reaction to being told he isn’t getting it: a big new $40,000 2010 car (with which he would surely kill someone). He gave up on the $6,000 motorcycle (with which he would surely have killed himself)... but only after many, many weeks. And now this.

It’s the first time they’ve ever said “No” to him and he isn’t giving up easily... raging around the house, etc.

I just stay out of it.

Reda had taken the day off again today as her sister, Zuba, is 63, a bit frail and just kind of elderly with cataract surgery she needs but seems frightened to pursue and not holding up very well under her son Mahmoud’s constant pressure. But no emergency calls came through during the day and we were home until 7 pm when the call finally came and Reda stated flatly that she was going over to the house she shared with them for 18 years (a 150 sq meter flat).

I didn’t want to ask her to take a taxi but I didn’t want take her over there myself, either, so I called Assim, their patient protector/cousin/next-best-thing-to-brother who helps them out, to see if it was worth it. I mentioned that Reda was saying there was an imam there for some reason and Assim then said it would be good to get over there as both he and the imam had been there the night before, the imam reading useful passages from the Quran to Mahmoud.

So off we went in the late rush-hour traffic, getting there in about half an hour rather than the 15 minutes it usually takes after 8 pm. The imam was gone and Mahmoud had locked himself in his room. I figured the two sisters would then want to talk for a few hours and went off by myself to visit friends. Only since this motorcycle and car business came up, except immediately after we were married, have they been having long, long talks on the phone... occasionally tearful before, during or after this time ‘round. Mahmoud didn’t come home one night recently, the first time he had ever done that, and Reda was just wailing though Mahmoud is 20 years old.

I first went to see my carpenter, Ashraf. I gave him $800 eight months ago to build a desk and book cases for my home office. He had built my kitchen cabinets and cupboards when I was in my own little flat, delivering about a year ago... some three months after the down payment (the kitchen pieces are now here in our present flat – Egyptians move their kitchen counters and cabinets from house to house like the Swedes).

He wasn’t in tonight but Assim’s older brother was – Mohamed who signed over responsibility for Reda to me at the mosque when we signed our marriage contract. 

Mohamed is also a carpenter and does some work with Ashraf from time to time. Assim related to me eight months ago that I was lucky to get the original kitchen stuff finished and delivered so quickly, telling me several stories of how long it took Ashraf to get certain projects done. He said, “Since it’s paid in full, it will probably be a long time before he starts and much, much longer before he finishes. You should have taken me with you when you placed the order. You should never pay Ashraf in full when placing an order.” He wasn’t wrong but there’s a longer story about why it had been paid in full that I might tell another day.

Ashraf is a gifted craftsman and kind of a puppy dog (we can say in English, but not Arabic)... he just wants to be loved and people put up with his faults because they specifically want things made by him. Especially Assim and certain of Assim’s close friends around Faisal. I’m beginning to learn that these men, including Ashraf, who have so welcomed me into their company for four years and more, are school days friends of Assim. I knew, vaguely, that Assim’s father married Reda’s mother’s sister, in the late 1930s, approximately, and raised his family on the Red Sea coast where he did well in construction. Some of the projects of the time, that are major visitor destinations today, were just getting started and he did well, indeed. I knew a bit of that and that his children were all educated to the highest degree they desired (the eldest son an MBA or something [his son is director of Radio Shack logistics in Egypt], the eldest[?] daughter a physician, Assim, trained in commercial painting contracting… other stories that escape me for the moment). But I only recently came to understand that their father maintained two households from the time the children came of school age: one or, over time, different family homes on the Red Sea and one in Cairo where the children were with their mother during the school year. And Assim’s friendship with Ashraf and these other men, with all Ashraf’s gifts and faults, go back to the 1950s.

Assim’s advice has been to stop by Ashraf’s shop occasionally and then every day if possible once he had actually started work on my office furniture... which was about 3 months ago. I stop by and kind of admire how it is coming along and try to keep the ball rolling.

But tonight my stuff was buried under a large order involving an entire kitchen, as it has been for about a month. I talked to Mohamed for half an hour and then headed off for Tarek’s music studio.

Tarek is a 50 year old composer, arranger and conductor who has won the “Middle East Arranger of the Year Award” 15 of the last 25 years. The most famous composer/arranger in the Arab world through many of those years but a private, humble and exuberantly happy guy, content to live in an enormous flat on Tersa Street some few hundreds of meters from my little flat over there, so as to be close to where an important recording studio was built some decades ago between Faisal and Pyramids Streets. Actually, he has three flats. One for himself and his present wife. Another in an adjacent suburb for his mother. And one above his own for his ex-wife and their grown, but not yet married children from his first marriage.

He was the man from Assim’s mosque that Assim brought along to the imam when I went to declare my faith a few days after getting back from Australia in 2008 (which was just a couple days short of a year before I met Reda).

Tarek has a number of rather high level religious training certificates and speaks a wider English-of-religion than Assim. Assim knew for some months of my intention to go to mosque upon returning 16 April 2008 and he had arranged that Tarek come along that night to translate for the imam and myself so the imam would not fear there were any misunderstandings. Assim and Tarek are old friends and Tarek and I immediately became friends as well.

Tarek was sitting at his really, really big, really, really souped-up Macintosh computer when I arrived, composing the orchestral accompaniment to a revered Yemini-Saudi singer/songwriter’s latest creation. He’s like an Egyptian falafel sandwich-maker at the computer – hands flying at about 90 miles an hour – right at the limit for hours on end. I can’t imagine how he escapes tendonitis. He works sort of 2 pm to midnight at his studio and unless he’s out of town it’s a fairly sure bet he’ll be there between those hours except for Fridays and occasionally Saturdays.

When I got married, Tarek said, “I’ll give you LE6000 for your assurance.” “Assurance” is what they call the money foreigners must pay each year to the government to engage in commerce or be employed in Egypt. It wasn’t of moment at the time of the wedding as I was doing the New Zealand anthropologist’s Papua-New Guinea dictionary work. We can do work from abroad on a tourist visa, which is what I had until last month, so long as we pay the normal income tax.

So as the dictionary work was coming to an end and I began to look for other things, the LE6000 was in the air and Tarek mentioned it the other day. I thought I was getting a working visa last month but they only gave me a residency visa without the right to work. The residency visa is tied to marriage. A working visa is tied to the 6000 which is paid by an employer or by oneself if self-employed. I hadn’t realized there was a difference and only then began to understand this “assurance” stuff Tarek and Assim had mentioned at the time of the wedding. Assim gives me LE6000 a year for his hotel’s very, very part-time internet reservations work so he wasn’t the place to go looking for the 6000 which would then be good for any other work I did for other Egyptian clients or employers. This would later turn out to involve certain misperceptions but it’s what we all understood of the situation on this particular night.

I had become uncomfortable with taking the LE6000 money off Tarek. So I went to see him.

“I wanted to tell you I can’t take the 6000,” I said, without sitting down.

“But I told you I’d give it to you,” he protested.

“But I should have said ‘No’,” I said.

“But it’s nothing,” he said. Which was a lie. His 35 year-old sister is finally getting married; ASAP as far as her family is concerned. Their father died 30 years ago and Tarek is her only hope for a fancy wedding, which Tarek very much wants to provide for her. And his oldest kids are all in expensive private schools and universities.

“It’s money,” I said. “Between us. And there’s never been money between us. So let’s not start now. We’ll buy a house in a couple years. Loan me 10,000 (LE) for a year when we do that instead.”

He’s got two producers, one presently offering “11 million” and the other more if he’ll do a 5 CD symphonic album of his own melodic compositions. He’ll have 10,000 LE left “in a couple years”, I reckon. And it will fit well with what is the local feeling of being adrift if not constantly owing some people and being owed by others.

Tarek broke out into a surprised smile, shook his head and I walked out without either of us saying more.

That trip only killed half an hour so I went to a coffee house near Reda’s sister’s house but the fun waiter I know works the day shift, I didn’t see anyone else I knew and after drinking a cup of tea so slowly it got cold I called Assim. He was home so I drove the 10 or 15 minutes to his house.

I asked his advice about Mahmoud which I had never done directly before, saying I kept my mouth shut because it’s better, down the road, if it was his uncles slapping him around when he went over the top rather than me.

“Mahmoud told me,” Assim reported, “that ‘This is the first time they’ve ever told me ‘No’. Why now?... what’s wrong with what I’m asking???’”

So he is actually and truly mystified. And his mommies are El Menya girls who never had a fridge until Reda got the one I brought along… the one which young Ahmed Magdy gave me as one of his gifts in kind for the year of free rent. So then Zuba had to have one, too. They just never spent a penny except on Mahmoud which is the kind of living that allowed them to build a six storied apartment building, floor by floor, for cash over the years. Reda, the electrical engineer, and Zuba who taught for 15 or 20 years in high paying jobs in Saudi Arabia. Mahmoud was born there (her ex-husband is also Egyptian) and Zuba came back here with Mahmoud after saving up a lot of gold when it was still rather inexpensive..

“So that is what this is truly all about?” I asked. “It’s the first time in his life he’s been told, ‘No.’ ‘No,’ is what they really mean. And we’re all just going to have to tough it out?”

“Yes,” he replied, not de-energized in the least. He has a difficult stepson who is perhaps 23, but finally maturing, and he then told the story of the latest episode with him. He’s like that around the hotel, as well. I’ve never seen him make a mistake when dealing with people, young or old.

“Assim,” I said. “Before marrying Reda and working for you I worked alone for 25 years and lived alone for 12 years. I didn’t even know what patience was, anymore. I’m not sure I had any in the first place. I learn a lot from you.”

Then I left and went back to Ashraf’s.

Ashraf was still gone and so was Mohamed, cabinetry in various stages of completion spread out onto both sides of the street which isn’t 5 yards wide, the roll-down door of the shop half open (people don’t nick stuff in these neighborhoods until after about 3 or 4 am). I decided to call Ashraf on my mobile before I gave up and then Reda. Ashraf reported that he was 1/2 hour away (easily not true and easily stretched to longer if he meant to avoid me). Reda asked for more time with Zuba but it was getting on towards 10 and I thought I better go over there and get things moving.

I got Reda to take off with me straight away but as we motorcycled out of the neighborhood she asked me to turn left back into the neighborhood rather than right towards the main boulevards to our home. She wanted to see someone for “10 minutes”. They were delightful. A woman and her 20 something daughter. Of course they all talked for an hour or two.

We got home right at midnight, as I guess I already mentioned.

Thinking back to what the working day was like today, nothing came to mind when I sat down to the computer after getting home tonight. Reda took the day off waiting for Zuba to call about Mahmoud. I worked the Sara Inn internet reservations through the morning for 3 or 4 hours as the holidays and high season are now upon us.

But now I remember we were house hunting in the afternoon.

Our one year lease, as I only recently learned (and this is standard), can be terminated by either party with one or two months’ notice. Which is just as well for the renter... one’s plans can change, one’s income may disappear, one’s neighbors might turn out to be unbearable, etc., etc. And now the landlord has suddenly said he wants to end the lease. As of 31 December.

His son is getting married a few months earlier than he expected when he signed the one-year lease (he had firmly told Reda “only one year” but I only became aware of that two or three months ago). The son will take the place (as the landlord and other people like him envisaged when buying such second or third or fourth houses 10 and 20 years before they are needed by their sons or daughters). “Good on ‘em.”

The ideal Egyptian father. To buy a place for each of their children, sons more often than daughters, perhaps, before or upon their marriage. Which is achievable for even rather poor people. The rather larger place Reda and I will begin looking for when she mandatorily retires 15 April, 2011 (yes... we first met at Assim’s house on her birthday) won’t cost us $30,000 or $40,000. The bachelor boys’ starter flats (45-65 sq meters) through a vast area of Pyramids aren’t $10,000 and some millions of families in richer and poorer Cairo, I would guess, began married life with a paid-for starter house.

So it seems we’ll be putting our furniture back together on New Year’s Eve and trying to find all our favorite stuff in the moving boxes.

Probably in this same “city of the armed forces” development. Many people are doing the same thing we are... getting a lot of floor space (“165 sq meters” [~ 1650 square feet] calculated by portion of building’s slab... about 135, actual) for $140 a month when they’re renting... ours has been just ~$100 due to the short lease or something.

I want to stay in this same building and Reda says, “We’ll see,” after viewing the one flat that may be available. The neighbors are wonderful... have made us feel welcomed... they always give a pleasant nod and the standard verbal greetings but are scrupulously private. There’s a well-lit place to chain up the motorcycle at night. It’s maybe 6-800 meters from Reda’s office. But there is only one empty unit in this building that may be available to let and the kitchen and bathroom have been gutted but not put back together yet. I think it’s been arranged that we look at it tomorrow evening. We only understand each other clearly about half the time but that hasn’t been a huge problem. We’re both glad to have found each other, there’s a lot of trust and joy, and we’re still just kind of laughing most of the time. I’ll get half the story and then forget half of that and suddenly it’s time to go someplace and I just cast my fate to the wind and we drive off to where she wants to go and I start putting the pieces together once we get there.

She is a product of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s early women’s education initiatives. An electrical engineering associate or some kind of two year degree. Whatever it was that had become available to women at the time. Abdel Nasser came to their school and shook their hands when she was 13, encouraging them, especially the girls, to get higher education. So when I kiss her hand….

I write for Mahmoud. His mother was about 43 when he was born and Reda about 38 and then Zuba and Reda raised him together from the time of his parent’s divorce when he was 2. We will all be gone sooner than he might like (although he might not feel that way tonight), and my Reda diary will be one of the things I leave him.

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Addendum 1 – week later

I didn’t quite understand why Reda and Zuba were suddenly looking so bright when I showed up to collect Reda from Zuba’s on the evening described above... I was glad for it at the time as it left me feeling rather upbeat and in the mood to send a holiday note off into the ether. But when I went to the hotel after I woke up from sleeping through the morning Assim told me that Zuba and Reda had, that previous night, told Mahmoud that they would buy him the car... but would have to sell an apartment or empty lot first and that it would take a couple months... which they, of course, aren’t going to do. There is, in fact, no plan to buy him a car at all. But this will give Mahmoud time to reflect on the wisdom of selling off his inheritance to fund the whims of the moment and provides an indefinite delaying tactic to Zuba and Reda... inventing stories of deals that fell through etc. month after month. Anyway, we were over there again some days after the evening mentioned above… Mahmoud cheerful and content that they had given in to him... Zuba and Reda glowing in the relief of finding a sustainable delaying tactic.

23 January 2010 – An unfortunate experience

Today’s notes concern a strapping young steer who had an unfortunate experience. He got eaten.

My neighbor’s middle son at the flat I own, Ahmed Magdy Selim, is kind of a self-made man who I have mentioned before and there are perhaps some hundreds of thousands like him in Pyramids. This young bloke went to government schools and then did accounting at Cairo University, working part time as a house painter, and has just now, at the age of about 26 or 27, been promoted to chief or other upper level supervisor of reservation personnel or something like that after only three years at the Intercontinental Semiramis mega hotel on the Nile downtown. He, at least, seems on his way to being a little bit rich.

When he finished a Berlitz intensive business English course after his accounting BA and military service four years ago, I took him on a bit of a hike to meet Assim. We found him at the used furniture store he, at the time, owned and operated evenings close to his home in Faisal. Assim talked to Ahmed quietly and a bit privately and the few words spoken that I understood suggested that Assim was asking about Ahmed’s education. After some further lounging in front of a cup of tea at the furniture store, Ahmed and I started out on the long walk back to Tersa/Omda (the nearest well-known cross-street on Tersa).

“He hired me,” Ahmed gasped as soon as we were out of earshot from the furniture store. “He hired me to help with the bookkeeping and the evening shift.”

So that was that. I went back to Australia a few short days later and received nothing but reports of love and admiration in Assim’s emails about Ahmed and Ahmed’s emails about Assim for the two years I was back in Australia. And it was the two of them together who picked me up at the airport almost exactly two years later when I came back for good.

It’s fun to watch over time as I hang around and do a little work at the hotel... Assim’s kind of well-known for training and then launching young people on to bigger things. A great mentor, we would say in English. A bit of a sheikh to the young people who received their start in life from him.

By the time I left to go back to Australia in 2006 I was content with the flat I had bought and content that I would work, live and die with my friends in those neighborhoods when I retired from full-time employment in linguistics in 2008. I’d never really dropped my anchor before.

I decided by about 2007 back in Australia that I would also die praying with them and told Assim and Ahmed in phone calls that I wanted to go to mosque and declare my faith upon getting back to Egypt.

They wasted no time when I returned, April 2008, and the first day I was first looking well rested after returning they explained that Assim would take me to a particular sheikh/pastor and that another man would be there as well.


It was the sheikh from that first night at mosque, Sheikh Asfor (“Sparrow”), who came to my sister-in-law Zuba’s house two or three evenings ago... two or perhaps three days after she “sacrificed” a cow in honor of my marriage to Reda eight months ago.

I’ve been a great disappointment to Sheikh Asfor as I will mention presently.

As Assim now tells the story, Zuba told Assim, after he had introduced Reda and myself to each other, “I’m gonna kill a cow if she marries this guy (“sacrifice” – no precise English equivalent of an Arabic word that seems to imply either “kill” or “sacrifice” [“sacrifice” animals as in the Old Testament – they actually then consumed the animals as Jewish and Muslim people do today]). I promise to God I will kill a cow.” Assim was glad to let the comment be forgotten for a time but he has recently begun to tell me that story saying that he has been recalling it more and more to Zuba… “You can’t promise to God to do that and then not do it…”

So the cow story started some days ago with a two or three km motorcycle ride from Reda’s sister’s house up to where the farms start in northwest Pyramids/Faisal directly west of Dokki (and then extend north and beyond 26 July Corridor and then into the Delta). Not far at all from Reda and Zuba’s building – there are vast agricultural lands that are still being cultivated. The city now surrounds that huge part of the Nile’s west bank farms, which is on the Nile flood plain. The east bank, Cairo proper, has a bit of elevation and was the earlier city in its entirety. As mentioned before, the west bank flood plain only became available for residential use after the Aswan Dam was finished and that area quit flooding every spring.

At the southwestern edge of that remaining farm land, Reda paid for the cow under the date palms with money Zuba had given her and then we slowly putt-putt-putted back to Zuba’s place, one of the Upper Egypt kind of guys who sold us the cow walking along behind us in his galabea, leading the cow, followed by another motorcycle putt-putt-putting along with two butchers in galabea on it bringing up the rear. The “cow” was a two year old steer which looked very clean and healthy. They slaughtered it in their apartment building’s entrance/foyer because there was a drain on the floor for the blood.

When I got back some hours later, Reda and Zuba were finished with the butchering which they had done in an apartment in their building they are renovating after the men slaughtered, skinned, gutted and quartered the cow downstairs and brought the pieces up to them. They had it all in a big pile of black plastic bags of perhaps 5-10 kilos next to a gleaming white pile of bones.

Zuba gave me perhaps 10 kilos to take to “my” family (Ahmed Magdy’s parents, specifically). Reda and Zuba then distributed much of the rest around Zuba’s neighborhood over the next day or two, the biggest bags to the poorest families, and Reda and I brought armloads, perhaps 25 kilos, home for ourselves which went into the freezer with perhaps 3 kilos for our building’s doorman.

Sheikh Asfor came to Zuba’s place a few nights ago to do what imam’s do when someone sacrifices a cow. I went to his mosque many Fridays immediately after my conversion. But that soon came into competition with an equally conservative mosque very near my little flat where I was living (while Sheikh Asfor’s mosque was more like a 4 or 5 km hike through the streets of our neighborhoods).

A mosque near my flat took an interest in me once they noticed I was wandering off for the noon prayers in galabea every Friday at about 11 am. I was visited at home by three men, one of them a locally famous sheikh who has spent most of the last 20 years in Los Angeles with a growing mega-mosque. Actually someone came up from Magdy’s flat who said there were some men at Magdy’s house who would like to talk to me – and I went down to see what it was all about). Sheikh Mahdy speaks an unaccented American English and told me in a friendly, welcoming way that the men with him would help me get started in reading the Koran at a nearby mosque.

So it was Sheikh Mahdy at my brother Magdy’s house. Surely I will think of tongue twister with which to tell future versions of the story.

Sheikh Mahdy’s invitation soon became rather more appealing than Sheikh Asfor’s mosque because that small mosque – very small mosque – which Sheikh Mahdy directed me to is very close to my house – very close – and doesn’t pray Gomah (“1. the Friday midday prayer; 2. Friday”). Like many of the small mosques on our streets over around Tersa/Omda, everybody goes to a certain large mosque on the main street, Tersa, for Gomah. There the “Dr.” imam speaks rather softly for about 20 or 30 minutes while Sheikh Asfor always speaks for an hour and a bit… in a great bellowing voice over a loud PA system... to a good-sized gathering I might add. Very popular with Upper Egypt migrants. Of course I never understood anything of what either one of them was saying in their sermons so I was glad for a shorter walk to a shorter talk. I wore galabea to the Tersa Street mosque for a while. But it didn’t seem to be the most common thing to do so I then usually didn’t unless I was just feeling kind of happy and wanted to go to mosque as Muslims did 1,000 years ago and more, wearing galabea and sandals, my eyeglasses and wristwatch left at home and nothing in my pockets but my house key and prayer beads.

By the end of a year and a month back in Egypt, almost precisely, I got my first flat with Reda in Dobat. Here I go to a large mosque on the other side of the school from our flat. People at that mosque are pleasantly oblivious to me, as they were at the big mosque on Tersa Street, except that one or two people a month may walk up when they notice me somewhere in the neighborhood, and introduce themselves, saying they’ve seen me at mosque, and welcoming me since I seem to be new. They don’t necessarily assume that I am a foreigner. They just occasionally and pleasantly welcome anyone new to a mosque. An Egyptian might be a white, white Europoid (although very, very few have anything but jet black hair unless they are Syrian) or a black, black African.

I had learned by the time we married and moved out here that neither Sheikh Asfor’s mosque nor the small mosque I was directed to in my old neighborhood by Sheikh Mahdy are highly regarded by the main of the larger community. And... surprise, surprise, surprise... certain members of the one small “Sunna” mosque even made disparaging comments about the other.

There is mild disdain towards those Upper Egypt people who cling to their rural ways on the part of older Pyramids families and there is the same resentment towards fundamentalists in general that so many of us have in America and Australia. Jesus will come back if we help Israel steal more land from the Palestinians (America and even a bit of that in Australia). The rich people who don’t want to pay for my ten kids’ education will burn in hell (Egypt). But it means something to Assim and Tarek to attend Sheikh Asfor’s mosque so we talk about Islam quite often and I don’t say anything about Sheikh Asfor’s presumed disappoint with me.

And of course the fundamentalists are delightful when you meet them individually.

So there we sat the other night, Sheikh Asfor and myself, at opposite ends of my sister-in-law’s dining table on the day they butchered the steer, kind of lightly sparing with each other... a glance and a frown on his part, a glance and a smile on mine. The Keeper of the True Religion and the Comfortably Less Than Pious.

He had arrived with 5 other men on three motorcycles, the youngest about 20, the oldest about his age... 40 or so.

I had declined an offer, from the youngest, of a miswaak (sticks the size of a toothbrush, the blunt ends of which they use to ritually clean the teeth). He kept trying to give it to me after prayers at Reda’s mosque (the one she and her sister built into the first floor of their apartment house). I just didn’t want it and I especially didn’t want him to think I was interested in all their many overt acts of piety. Prayers were done, we were still kneeling where we had prayed and I refused it three times and then got up and moved to another part of the mosque when he poked it at me a fourth time. The Palestinians are not going to get their state etc. if I use miswaak. Which is, essentially, what fundamentalists of this type believe. Like Jerry Falwell, who came flying out the door September 11 and blamed the attacks on American homosexuals and others, Egyptians became more religiously conservative after the 1967 war because they believe God would not have let Israel win if they, the Egyptians, had been living right. Women, for instance, started wearing head scarves again… and still do.

So afterwards we were sitting at the dinner table, Sheikh Asfor “harumphff-ing” slightly whenever our eyes met, the 40-ish guy with the biggest zabibah (see Wikipedia) glowering at me again and again until my amused smiles made him give up, the young bloke a bit upset until he saw by my constant smiles that I wasn’t mad at him. Neither Asfor nor any of the others tried to converse with me as they speak no English that I know of and perhaps assumed that since I wasn’t taking an interest in the True Religion I also was not learning any Arabic. Or maybe I’m on their “to be shunned list”, though I don’t know. They’re generally friendly towards us in the neighborhoods when Reda and I are out and about. Anyway, I kept my peace and just kind of enjoyed the situation and did not, at Sheikh Asfor’s table, try to converse.

I don’t remember anything else of consequence from that night except that after the meal Asfor had each of the other five go into all the rooms of the house and then, as if at the mosques around the neighborhoods, sing out the call to prayer, the Adhan, loudly at slightly different starting moments. They were all experienced muezzin, their calls filled the house and it was really quite thunderous and pleasant to all of us to hear.

Assim, Reda’s nephew Mahmoud and I then walked the six of them down the five flights of stairs to the three meter wide street and they climbed onto their three motorcycles (in their galabeas). I had been saying “Shokrun” again and again as we went down the stairs and then poured out onto the street. Then as they started to pull away I called out good and loud, over the rather quiet motorcycle noises, “Shokrun tani! Miraati mabsuuta awi!” (“Thank you again! My wife is very happy!”). They exploded in embarrassed laughter. I don’t know why. Perhaps they then assumed I had understood everything they had been saying through the evening.

So that’s the report from Pyramids of a Saturday evening. I only found out a week or ten days ago that the spacious, gardened clubs of the rich keep lists of people offering native speakers’ English tutorials and that patrons of those clubs are used to paying $30 an hour for these services. So tonight I’ll be getting the names and phone numbers of these places on the Giza side of the Nile gathered together off the internet and start calling them tomorrow. A couple I previously knew of already have my details. I have a copyediting application in limbo with an Arabic language newspaper that is working towards launching an English edition (which they have already done in Beta ~ provisionally on the internet). The editor in chief says she can’t get the business office to cut loose with the funds for my position at the moment and I know independently that they are behind schedule on the launch of their English hardcopy version whose advertising revenue and the eventual addition of advertising to the web version being, one would guess, the source of funds for the copyediting position. But I have a little income from work at Assim’s hotel... and more if I want it. And my first pension check arrived a few weeks ago from one of my old trucking companies in America. So we’re some months away from crisis mode, financially, and Reda’s cheerfully frugal in the meantime.

 



[1] The ubiquitous full length robe of the traditional style.




[1] For Cairo 2009 there were to be only 0.6 murders per 100,000 population compared, for instance, to Toyko’s 0.4, Oslo and Helsinki’s 1.2, London’s 1.6, Amsterdam’s 4.4 and New York’s 5.6).


 TO BE CONTINUED

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