Out of Egypt have I called my son
by Joe Palmer
[ places - april 02 ]
In 1971 we all went to Cairo to live in the old British colonial neighborhood of Ma'adi that had been built on the Nile at the south edge of the city. It was all villas and gardens and avenues, a haven for the wealthy who could afford to live away from the dust and stink of the ant-hill that is the old city. From the Makkatam Hills on the east to the city of Giza on the west, the first city of the world straddles the great river and spreads both north and south. Now 30 years later it is enveloping even Ma'adi, that Palm Beach of the eastern shore, with high-rise condominiums and shopping centers replacing the old estates.
I had made an arrangement with the American University in Cairo to teach their graduate students what I knew about the English language, and part of the deal was for us to occupy a big old manse near the international school for children in that safe, pretty suburb.
The house was a three-storey stucco hulk of a house in a large garden surrounded by a cement wall with two gates. In the garden were fruit trees - lemons, limes, and oranges - and under the vegetable patch was a bomb shelter beside the servants' quarters adjacent to the garage. Fireplaces in the living room and master bedroom helped defeat the pervasive chill. In Egypt you put your coat on when you go indoors, and take it off when you go outside, except during the summer.
We hired a cook and a houseboy, both approved by the Coptic house manager, Abdul Messiah, a follower of the Messiah, who oversaw the living conditions of the university's foreign staff members. The cook, Mustapha, had learned to cook in a British Army kitchen in Palestine. You could tell. The food he prepared was a cross between bubble and squeak. He swished about, sweeping the floors of the big house in his long gallabeya, his dark face hidden under his burnoose. Wiping up the pervasive desert dust, and sweeping up the desiccated leaves was the task of the houseboy, Shaadi, a cleft-lipt orphan, an obsessive lawn-sweeper whom falling leaves offended. When asked his age he said he didn't know. He was glad to accept the cast-off clothing of my older sons.
Shaadi kept the garden flourishing. He opened the floodgates to the stream of Nile water that ran under the sidewalk whenever the lawn asked for it. He looked after the gates and the flowers, opened and closed doors, ran errands, and played with the children after school. The elderly Mustapha served at the table and stoically accepted constant criticism of his inept cooking of the most beautiful vegetables and fruit in the world, all produced with Nile water and pigeon shit. The red meat and chicken were roasted on a spit kebab-style, or if it was particularly tough camel or goat, braising with onions helped make it edible. Beans and potatoes do not a cuisine make. Where else but Egypt, where meat is very dear and even rationed, do you find real, heavy 'baladi' bread, rice, beans, potatoes, and pasta served all at one meal?
Cairo offered little of amusement to us. The souks, in particular the Khan al Khalili, were dangerous tourist traps, where between cups of mint tea it was easy to lose your pockets and your pants. After seeing what might have been Maimonides' home among the kitchen middens of the ancient city and touring Mohammed Ali's palace, we learned to avoid the native quarters. Even the pastry palled, lacking the grace of lard.
Among our few diversions was a gazelle that we kept as a pet, for a while. I bought the beautiful Speke's gazelle Miriam on the street from an Arab child who had netted her in the desert and had carried her to town to sell for food, a great delicacy. Beige, buff, delicate, with a prehensile nose, she lived among the flowers, and wandered in and out of the house, eating cigarette butts from the ashtrays, and nibbling at nasturtiums in vases. Then one day Shaadi left the front gate open while he was raking the lawn. A neighbor's dog ran into the garden and chased Miriam onto the road and away. Other dogs heard the barking, and joined in the chase. Shaadi too ran after Miriam. When he returned with her all bitten and bloody, now a unicorn in his arms, he laid her on his pallet made of jute bags in his room next to the orange trees and wept. I fetched our next-door neighbor, an old medical doctor named Ali, who gave Miriam some brandy with a teaspoon, and said there was no hope.
Shaadi buried Miriam's body in a flowerbed beneath a broken concrete slab so that no hungry animal could dig her up.
During the Christmas break that year when we returned from a trip up the Nile, we found that two locked drawers had been forced open, and several pounds in kitchen money and pieces of my wife Jane's jewelry were gone. And so was Mustapha.
We called the police and a Persian friend, Faze Larudee, who came to help me. After inspecting the crime scene, the chief of police held a meeting at the police station, asking us to attend. We assembled, Faze and I, and twenty policemen, who were delighted at having something to do that was more than boring. Half the men were dressed as street people, indistinguishable from the beggars and peddlers that one sees everywhere. They waited attentively, hoping for some fun. A detective explained the situation, introducing me and my friend as honored foreign guests, a superfluity since we had had a twenty-four-hour guard on our house since we arrived in the country, like all foreigners and Jews. All Copts who had Jewish neighbors were obliged to watch them, in order to protect them. Foreign residents had to report to the police before leaving the city for any reason, to go to the beach, say, near Alexandria. When I went to Tel Aviv, they did not put a visa in my passport there, a special propriety, so that no one would know where I had been.
With the clanging of a cell-door being opened, they brought poor handcuffed, cringing Shaadi into the room, his nose bleeding from the beating they had given him. Standing over the crouching boy, in a loud voice the detective accused Shaadi of stealing from me, almost a capital crime. Shaadi fell to his knees, weeping, begging in Arabic for mercy. In English he screamed "I no klefti! I no klefti!" He rolled into the fetal position, covering his face with his hands, sobbing.
I assured the detective that I thought that Shaadi was innocent, that he was just a child. Faze, a Protestant minister, translated what I said, and added his own plea for mercy. The detective shrugged and said to me " Kwais, el-hamdu-l'illah," "Good, God be praised," and told one of the turnkeys to let Shaadi go, just like that. The turnkey took off the cuffs.
Shaadi looked at me, and then at the detective, and ran out the door. The policemen, disappointed, shuffled around and started talking to each other. The detective thanked me for my trouble. Faze and I looked at each other and shrugged.
I never saw Shaadi again.
I hired a private detective to find Mustapha, who had disappeared into the mazes of Cairo, mostly because I coveted a ring that was missing. Princess (Momluang) Boonlua of Siam had helped me buy it from one of her family's tenants, a jeweler, who set the forty-carat blue cabochon sapphire with diamonds in white gold. The detective, after a few weeks, reported that Mustapha had been seen in Jordan, but that his pursuit would cost too much in bribes to make it worth doing. Baksheesh, baksheesh, Allah-la.
One of my duties at the American University was to teach a group of high school teachers of English who came together two evenings a week in a classroom down the hall from my office in a beautiful old colonial building just off the Midan in central Cairo. The office was a private room with a ceiling fan, a large desk, and a couch big enough for napping. It overlooked a garden with an ornate fountain and palm trees. There were two servants on that floor, both men, of course, who brought trays of Turkish coffee and sweet tea and pastries on request. There were two efficient and able lady secretaries, both native speakers of French who had lived all their lives in the European community, which was then an amalgam of Greek, Italian, French, Levantine, and British leftovers of previous colonial days.
My favorite class, on the other hand, was an afternoon assemblage of native-speaking American hippies and draft-dodgers who were there along with a few rich girls and young wives of expatriates and wealthy Cairenes and Alexandrines. Among them was a joy that comes from having nothing to lose and not giving a damn, something like the nonchalance of the filthy rich at Yale, something that Gatsby lusted after. They all had a good time together in a Woodstock way, reading Lawrence Durrell and trying to act decadent. A few of them even learned a little about the history of English. I had been able to obtain a teaching position for one of them, the son of an old friend, who was grateful to be there. Instead of emptying bedpans for Uncle Sam in Puerto Rico as a conscientious objector, Robert Van Camp avoided the draft, got a master's degree, and was able to bring his mother Dorothy to Egypt to visit us. His father would have been proud of him. Other students, memorably the fun-loving free spirits Lynn Tietsworth and John Perkins, became our good friends.
On the other hand, the evening students were dour, tired, dirty, bedraggled social workers, teachers of hoi-polloi, who had to take courses and get university credit in order to keep their piteous jobs. Their classroom behavior was exactly the sort of behavior that they demanded from their students -- obsequious, sedulous pandering, and breathless, squirming obeisance. I spoke, and they wrote. When I tried to elicit from them any kind of information about their personal knowledge or feelings, the response was invariably a question about what I wanted to hear from them. I'll tell you if you'll tell me. For weeks from that bunch no one stood out in any way. They were expert in not showing off any special knowledge, in not blotting their copybooks, in doing what must be done in order to preserve their precarious estate. They feared each other.
The classes were like rehearsals for lectures. I would read through my notes aloud, and then hold a conversation with myself aloud, trying to recall good points about the material that students in the past had made. I could ask why we call roast beef what we do, instead of roast ox or cow, but then I could not hope that the students would shape and extend the observation into a generalization. They feared everything, even the relationship between 'pig' and 'pork.'
At the end of one class, when I had tired of talking to myself, after the students had each shaken my hand and thanked me for sharing and even imparting my scanty knowledge, the last student in the line, a typical, cookie-cutter Egyptian teacher, wearing an ill-fitting gabardine jacket and slacks, a vest against the chill, and a dirty shirt and tie, took my hand. In his palm was a lump wrapped in aluminum foil that he passed to me.
I looked at the chestnut-size ball in my hand and then at my middle-aged student.
He smiled, my conspirator. "Hashish," he whispered. His moustache trembled.
An apple for the teacher, a gift from Mahmoud Shaloub, a man to be reckoned with, as it turned out, an inspector of schools.
"Why," I asked.
"You are my esteemed teacher," he replied, nodding and backing.
"Thank you, uh, I think..." I stammered. "How do you use it?"
"In cigarette, or hubbly-bubbly," he explained with dental sounds. Those guys you see sitting around in tea-shops and on the streets smoking their water pipes do not have their headlights turned on.
"Aiwah," I said, of course.
So I was in the thrall of a most ambitious man who was playing the game.
The hashish was a dark brown thick paste, the pollen of the hemp plant, the mother of marijuana. It is collected in a singular way: when the large, bushy plants are in full flower, a naked man carries an armful of them into a small, sealed room that is lined completely with stainless steel sheets. There he beats the Bejeezus out of the plants against the walls, floor, and ceiling, the pollen flying about and sticking to the polished walls and the man. They are then scraped down with sharp knives to recuperate the sticky bee-bread. You can smoke it or eat it. It is the alcohol of Islam.
"Al-shokran," I told Mahmoud. Thank you. It was a deal. What else was there to do?
"Bismillah," he said. "Use it for your pleasure in the name of God."
I assured him I would, and I did. Once I had accepted that mini-bribe, I was obliged to do something in return, and I waited and watched to see how long it would take Mahmoud to start calling in his marker. Then at the end of the term, just before the final examinations, Mahmoud invited me to dine with him at his apartment near the Museum of Antiquities.
"Shall I bring Mrs Palmer with me?" I asked.
"Laa, mish moumkin," he answered. It would not be possible for me to bring my wife to dine at his home.
On the designated evening, I asked the taxi driver to stop at a market where I bought a dozen red roses to present to the lady of the house at the dinner party. We easily found the block and flat, and I mounted the stairs full of curiosity. Mahmoud met me at the door, greeted me warmly, and ushered me down a narrow hallway to a dining room where a large table was set for two diners. He took the bouquet from me and handed it through a door to someone in the next room. Then he invited me to sit across the long table from him. He fetched a full bottle of brandy and two water glasses from a sideboard, set them down on the table and filled them full to the brim.
"Chin-chin," he said, as he carefully passed me a glass.
"That's quite a bit of liquor," I observed.
"Yes, but it is the favored drink," he explained.
As we drank, an old woman, a baboushka carrying a tray full of serving dishes entered and placed food on the table. She did not glance at me. She went back into the next room and then returned with another tray full of dishes. There was enough food to satisfy all the ranch hands.
I expected other guests or Mahmoud's wife and children to join us.
I sat and sipped my brandy.
"El-hamdu-l'illah," he said, God be praised, raising his glass. "Eat, Professor!" He pushed a plate of stuffed grape leaves toward me. We began to eat.
Between bites, Mahmoud passed the food and chewed. Memory fails to recall most of the dishes before us because as we took from a dish the old woman would appear from behind the swinging door, remove the partly empty dish, and replace it with another, different sort of food. She shuttled back and forth from the kitchen, like a fireman stoking a boiler. We were not eating so much as we were merely the tasters of food that was going to a table in another room.
Dishes kept arriving: cous-cous with lamb, baked chicken, falafel, kibbe, shish-kebab, broiled squab, ful medames, oriental salads, garbanzos, tabouleh, bright red pickled turnips with tahini and baladi 'village' bread made of spongy millet, with boiled potatoes, beans and rice...
With the copious food we drank the local red wine, Nefertiti, from wine glasses.
While I picked at a plate of oily pastries, Mahmoud refilled my water glass with brandy.
"Let us smoke," he said smiling, and gestured towards a door. We entered the salon, a cramped museum-room full of Nineteenth Century French furniture, all brocade and rosewood.
I sat stiffly on the edge of a pouf-like couch, balancing my glass of brandy. Mahmoud offered me a Cleopatra cigarette. There were brass ashtrays on a hammered brass coffee table.
"Ahwa Turk!" he suddenly cried. The old woman appeared carrying a tray of cups and a ladle of hot bittersweet coffee. She poured the coffee, retreated, and still did not look at me. We sipped and smoked. Brandy, coffee, tobacco.
Then Mahmoud brightened.
"And now, Professor, you will meet my daughter Amina. She is of age fifteen."
He clapped his hands, the door swung open, and a pudgy, plain little girl, wearing a long, dark skirt, and a Kelly-green nylon sweater stood before us, her hands clasped in front of her, her head bowed, trembling.
"Speak to the professor!" he commanded. He turned toward me.
"She is a student of English," he explained.
"Say good evening!" he urged. The girl caught her breath in sobs. Her trembling increased. She shifted her balance from one foot to the other. Her face reddened. She looked up at me, unable to comply. In a fugue, she began to faint, and as she lost her balance, Mahmoud slapped her face with his open hand, sending her crumpling to the floor.
"Children," he said, shaking his head in disappointment. "Today, nothing good."
Holding her under her arms, he dragged Amina from the room. The door swung shut after them. Presently, Mahmoud returned, sat down, took a gulp of brandy, and looked at me, his head tilted, his brow furrowed, demanding sympathy.
"One must be firm," I said.
"She can both read and write, but she will not speak," he complained.
"But she is a girl, female..." I tried to find something convenient to say.
"Insh'Allah," he said, nodding agreement. "Of course. It is the will of God."
A week later I awarded to Mahmoud the grade of "A" in the course about the history of the English language. I graded the students on a curve, that is, comparing them with each other. Mahmoud was the best of the lot. That was when I gave the dean my letter of resignation.
Being a stranger in a most hospitable land was easy. The Egyptians were personable, generous, and kind, to a fault. It was not the people, but their situation, that I found interesting.
Once in a while an Israeli jet fighter plane would buzz the city, in order to test the aircraft defenses and to shake everybody a bit. A very fast and loud airplane would fly low up or down the Nile in the center of the city, just above the bridges, rattling the windows in a sort of defiance. And somehow during such a flyover a small bomb exploded in the schoolyard of the Ma'adi School while my children were in the building. No one was hurt outright. But the wisdom of living there then came seriously into question, which, one supposes, was the point of bombing a mostly wealthy expatriate neighborhood. This ploy worked, as far as I was concerned: Egypt could not get outside help if it was too dangerous or uncomfortable for foreigners to live there.
Life in Egypt was seldom boring. One day as we occasionally did, instead of eating kebab and lentils for lunch at a nearby fast-food emporium, some American students and I went over to the Nile Hilton Hotel for a proper meal. Since the hotel catered to wealthy Europeans, there were always clean tables and an imitation-Western menu that reminded us of home.
While we were waiting in the dining room to be seated, we heard four loud popping sounds coming from the lobby that we had just passed through. We pushed along with the crowd that was gathering to see what caused the commotion.
On the floor there were three men on a large oriental carpet in front of the desk. Two of them were apparently wiping their bloody hands on their faces.
"What are they doing?" I asked a bellboy next to me.
"They drinking the blood... blood of the traitor," he replied, while policemen rushed in to arrest the assassins of Wasfy Tell.