Purely Egyptian Moments: The Officer, the Flower Man and I ألحاظ مصرية محضة: الضابط وصاحب الورد وأنا
A couple of times a week as the sunsets and the call to the maghrib prayer softly resonates over Cairo, I am drawn to a nearby flower kiosk across from the Bulgarian ambassador’s residence. There, I sit on a dust covered crate of empty Coca-cola bottles amongst gaudy flower arrangements and discarded sunflower seed shells under haze of cheap cigarette smoke.
It is tea time in this sliver of Cairo. Taking a break from his twenty-four hour shift at the flower shop, Abd el-Allem fires up the butane and sets the kettle of water to boil while Abu Hussam – also in the midst of a twenty-four hour shift – wanders over from his guard shack across the street. Sharing the same work schedule of twenty-four hours on and forty-eight hours off, Abd el-Allem and Abu Hussam have shared tea every third night for longer than I have walked the face of the earth. Six months ago, however, in a queer twist of Egyptian hospitality, their duo became a trio.
Simple pleasantries are exchanged in thick Fayoum, Deltan and foreign accents until the water boils and the tea is served. I politely insist on a mere spoonful and a half of sugar while my Egyptian companions drink their sugar with a bit of tea. Grasping the glass with two fingers on its thick bottom and a thumb on the rim, I take a swig of Lipton’s finest yellow leaf as the conversation starts to shift.
First comes the political overview on topics ranging from the latest protests in Tahrir Square and relations between Muslims and Coptic Christians to the civil/religious identity of the Egyptian state and parliamentary elections – Abd el-Allem voted for Freedom and Justice (Muslim Brotherhood) Party while Abu Hussam as an officer is not allowed to vote. Despite their lack of higher education, both are slightly progressive in their views declaring that religion should not be a justification for legislation. Nonetheless, both insist that the revolution itself – as defined by protests and sit-ins – is over.
Conversation shifts as soon as a young woman passes under Abu Hussam’s ever watchful gaze. At this point he grinningly lowers his grizzled face in my direction to whisper: أيه رايك؟ (what’s your opinion?) Knowing that I am both embarrassed and annoyed by what I deem to be inappropriate behavior, he does not expect an answer; it’s all a joke to him, merely an opportunity to shift conservation towards another favorite topic of conversation: my future and its marriage prospects.
Mocking my contentment with being single and unengaged, Abu Hassam continually suggests that I marry an Egyptian women, settle down in Egypt and continue to partake in his evening tea every third day. My answer has yet to changed but no matter how many different ways I phrase that I do not desire to marry and settle down in the near future the words fail to register. My translated thoughts while correct grammatically communicate a concept that is foreign culturally. Marriage is the core of the Egyptian familiar hierarchy – especially among the lower classes where the family unit (not the individual) is the building block of society, while settling down and raising the next generation is the highest goal of said society. Declining to participate in these societal norms is akin to declining to participate in the society itself.
Taking a final swig of the now tepid tea, I beg my leave despite the polite protests of Abd el-Allem and Abu Hussam. Ignoring my creaking joints to slowly rise from my perch on the Coca-cola crate, I brush the ash of my face of my pants and the dust of their seat. Another evening as drawn to an end in my sliver of Cairo full of conversation to be resumed over tea three days hence.